Caravan owners, how often do you have LPG appliances in your caravan serviced?
On Thursday, coroner Richard McElrea found that Timaru's Ian Joyce, 82, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his caravan at Lake Alexandrina. Former Timaru Herald editor Dave Wood was at the hearing. Why? Because the same thing almost happened to him, his wife and brother-in-law. This is his story.
The ticking of the clock probably saved our lives.
It was the night of March 23 last year and my wife Daph, her brother Stan, and I had gone to bed about 10pm following an afternoon of fishing at the south end of Lake Alexandrina and a game of cards at night in our recently acquired caravan.
About 4am, Stan was making moaning sounds indicating he was in some discomfort. Daph asked if he was OK and he complained about the noise of "that blasted clock". She got out of bed to stop the clock, and instantly she crashed to the floor.
I thought she had tripped on something in the dark but when she didn't move I went to her. Daph was on her side and barely conscious.
I endeavoured to sit her up but she was a dead weight and I was unable to move her.
I moved over to Stan, thinking he might be able to help, but his contorted face and inability to understand what I was saying made me initially think he was having a stroke.
I again attempted to move my wife but realised I had no strength and that I was starting to feel whoozy.
My immediate thought was an LPG leak inside the caravan. I quickly opened the caravan and awning doors and then the vents in the roof of the caravan and endeavoured to get air moving as much as possible.
Within a few minutes we were recovering, although we all were shaking uncontrollably.
In the cold light of day I realised we had probably been exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning, and that we had been very lucky. Not only was this upsetting, but I felt embarrassed at the danger I had exposed the three of us to. Not wishing to alarm family and friends, for some time we kept the incident from them.
I subsequently made a submission to the coroner handling the inquest into the death of Ian Joyce in which I outlined our experience, and on Thursday my wife and I attended the inquest.
The similarities between the carbon monoxide buildup in the Joyce caravan and in ours were extraordinary, and also frightening.
Both caravans were older models; neither had previously shown issues with carbon monoxide; both caravans had fridges with inadequate venting to the outside and lacked proper sealing inside; that night we had used a portable, unvented gas heater for a short time, as the Joyces may also have done; neither caravan had any adequate source of fresh air from outside; and neither was fitted with a carbon monoxide detector.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing: We had created a potential death-trap.
We have learnt from the experience. The fridge has been checked by a certified gasfitter, sealed properly inside the caravan, and two larger vents have been installed on the outside; the little gas heater is now a no-no in the caravan; we are more conscious of having fresh air coming into the van (we even had the ceiling vents open a little as snow fell at Lake Opuha last Monday); and a carbon monoxide detector has been installed, and is checked regularly to ensure it is functioning properly.
I was shocked to learn on Thursday that 26 people have died of carbon monoxide poisoning in caravans in New Zealand since 1973.
We have legal requirements on the overall safety of recreational vehicles through warrants of fitness; of their electrical safety through warrants of electrical fitness; regulations about the installation of gas appliances; and the installation of smoke detectors in caravans and motorhomes has become common sense through the importance applied to them in the home. But there are no legal requirements about having gas appliances checked and maintained, nor about having gas detectors (for LPG and carbon monoxide) installed.
Law changes to make such things mandatory are probably in the political too-hard basket, but are probably not needed if people's awareness of the dangers of gas appliances and inadequate ventilation are lifted as a result of the death of Mr Joyce, the coroner's comments, and our experience.
And anyone with a caravan, mobile home or bach who does not have detectors fitted for smoke, LPG and carbon monoxide is, in my opinion, mad.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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