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'Until our son died we didn't know about carbon monoxide poisoning, now we don't want anyone else going through this pain'

By Stephanie Bell

After losing their son Neil and his friend when fumes leaked from a gas appliance, Catherine and Johnny McFerran, from Co Antrim, want to save others from the same fate.

A mum, who lost her teenage son to carbon monoxide poisoning, is lending her voice to a national campaign urging people to get their gas heating appliances serviced before winter sets in.

Catherine McFerran, from Newtownabbey, has spent the four years since son Neil (18) died from carbon monoxide poisoning criss-crossing the province, giving talks to make people aware of the silent killer in their midst.

Through the Gis a Hug Foundation, set up in memory of Neil and his friend, Aaron Davidson, who died alongside him, Catherine and her family have also saved countless lives by distributing thousands of free carbon monoxide alarms.

The charity has also succeeded in having the law changed so that it is now compulsory for every new-build home to have a carbon monoxide alarm fitted as standard.

Catherine, whose campaign won her the Mum of the Year title in the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year awards 2014, is driven by a simple goal: "I don't want to read about another family going through what we are going through," she says. And, as Gas Safety Week, which starts on Monday, aims to highlight the potentially lethal risk lurking in appliances and heating systems, Catherine is urging people to have their appliances serviced by a registered engineer.

"It is so important that people get their appliances serviced every year and it still surprises me, when I am going round the province giving talks, how many people don't know about the dangers," she says.

"We didn't know about carbon monoxide poisoning. There was no awareness. When the boys died, we were told there had been 62 deaths in Northern Ireland by carbon monoxide poisoning in 10 years. What happened to the other 60? We had never heard of them. That's why we feel it is so important to get the message out there, create awareness and keep reminding people."

Neil was Catherine and husband Johnny McFerran's youngest child. Catherine (52), who works in administration, and Johnny (56), a chargehand in Bombardier, have three other children – Jonathan (36), Stephen (27) and Jillian (25).

Neil died alongside Aaron in an apartment in Castlerock, Co Londonderry, where they had gone for a break before getting their A-Level results in August 2010. Their friend Matthew Gaw (18), who was also in the apartment at the time, had to be resuscitated by paramedics.

The boys' parents found them when they travelled to the seaside town after becoming alarmed when they had been unable to contact them.

All three teenagers had been poisoned by carbon monoxide because of defective workmanship in the installation of a gas boiler in the property.

In January this year, George Brown, from Co Londonderry, who fitted the boiler, admitted causing their deaths.

Brown (52), of Ballygawley Road, Aghadowey, was sentenced to two years in jail and two years on licence for manslaughter. He also pleaded guilty to 19 further charges of failing to comply with health and safety legislation and was fined £19,000.

It was just a few weeks after the loss of the boys that Catherine and Johnny launched Gis A Hug. Since then, they have worked tirelessly to ensure that their grief is not visited on any other family.

Catherine says: "Neil worked part time in DW Sports in the Abbeycentre and it was his supervisor, Geoff Wells, who approached us with the idea of setting up the charity.

"It was called Gis a Hug because Neil hugged everybody he met – even people he was meeting for the first time. He just threw his arms around you when he saw you.

"We have a very good committee for the charity and we give carbon monoxide alarms free to students, the elderly and the vulnerable. We go out and do a lot of talks all over the province.

"It's going to be getting cold soon and people will be turning their heat on and it is very important that people get their appliances serviced first.

"It is also important that they use a registered engineer, who is qualified to work on the particular appliance that they are getting serviced.

"The engineer will have a card with their ID on one side and, on the other, it will state the appliance they are registered to service, whether it's cookers or boilers. It is crucial that people check this and don't feel embarrassed to ask."

She explains: "People need to be aware that carbon monoxide is a silent killer. You can't see it and you can't smell it, or taste it, and, without an audible alarm, you don't stand a chance.

"It's lighter than air and rises and can go through walls and ceilings, so you can be at risk from other premises beside or below you.

"Every home should have an alarm and people need to know that the alarms need to be up high and should be placed above eye level when you are standing up. Many people put them on tables, or shelves, which are too low.

"There is great need out there. I didn't know just how much need there was for raising awareness until I started to give the talks. People would tell me they didn't know about the risks of carbon monoxide in their own homes."

Catherine also warned of the risk in outbuildings such as workshops and garages which have appliances and advised that they, too, be fitted with alarms. People with open fires should also have them swept at least once a year by a registered chimney sweep. The Health and Safety Executive has a list of registered engineers and chimney sweeps across the province.

Recent research suggests that as many as 43% of us don't have our gas appliances checked annually and 10% have never had them checked at all.

Faulty appliances that use fossil fuel (coal, gas, oil or wood) can produce carbon monoxide. It's estimated that more than 4,000 people in the UK attend A&E departments each year because of carbon monoxide poisoning, with at least 40 dying from it.

The Department of Health estimates the true number of people exposed to sub-lethal amounts of carbon monoxide is even greater, however. Older people, children, pregnant women and their unborn children, and those with breathing problems or cardiovascular disease, are at increased risk of its effects.

When inhaled, carbon monoxide reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and so starves vital organs of oxygen.

As more carbon monoxide is breathed in, less oxygen can be carried in the blood and symptoms – which can include headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, chest pains, nausea and vomiting – worsen.

High levels can potentially lead to organ failure and can kill – sometimes quite rapidly.

Long-term exposure can also be associated with lasting neurological problems, like difficulty in concentrating. Symptoms can often mimic flu or food poisoning.

Scott Darroch, spokesman for the Gas Safe Register, which lists qualified gas engineers and which runs Gas Safety Week, says: "People with carbon monoxide poisoning might not necessarily put two and two together. You're feeling dizzy and a bit ill. Is it flu? Carbon monoxide poisoning can be very hard to detect."

Catherine McFerran says four years after Neil's death, the pain is, if anything, harder to bear.

Her campaign to raise awareness and try to save lives has kept her going in the tough days since her world was shattered.

"We don't want anyone else to go through what we are going through – our lives will never be the same," she says.

"It's so devastating and it doesn't get any easier. If anything, it gets worse as time goes on. It certainly doesn't get any better.

"You just have to work to make the best of what you've got. We have a great family, great friends and we are lucky to have great children."

She adds: "You've got to be positive, there's no alternative. We have to get out there and get the message across. That's what keeps us going."

Know the risks

Warning signs of carbon monoxide in the home:

  • Black, sooty staining on or around an appliance
  • A yellow gas flame from gas appliances, rather than a blue flame – although this doesn't apply to fuel-effect, living-flame or decorative-flame gas fires
  • A lot of condensation inside
  • Smoke accumulating in rooms
  • People, and even pets, living in the same house displaying symptoms which could indicate poisoning
  • Experiencing health symptoms which improve when you're outside

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