I thought I had early dementia but for three years I was poisoned by carbon monoxide

  • 19:25, 22 June 2015
  • By Angela Cooke

Nine years on, Sue Westwood is still suffering after-effects including poor memory, fibromyalgia and migraines…

Collect / John Gladwin Fault: Josh and Sue now outside the home When Christi Shepherd, seven, and her six-year-old brother Bobby died from carbon monoxide poisoning on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu, it was a senseless, avoidable tragedy. The odourless, tasteless, colourless gas from a faulty boiler seeped into their lungs while they were asleep and the horrific details of their deaths in 2006 came to light at an inquest last month. And when Sue Westwood heard about their deaths, it brought back awful memories. For in the same year, she found out that a badly installed boiler in her home had been poisoning her family for three years. And nine years on, she still suffers after-effects including poor memory, fibromyalgia and frequent migraines while her son Josh, 17, has trouble concentrating. The only reason her family survived was her husband’s insistence on sleeping with the windows open every night. It was a constant bugbear – but it saved their lives. “We were so lucky,” says the 42-year-old mum of two. “Every day, toxic fumes built up, but at night, with the windows open, they escaped. “We had no way of knowing how close to death we were, so when I read about those poor children in Corfu, I could have wept. “We were poisoned for three years, and even though I understand that the blame lies with plumbers who fitted the boiler, I never stop thinking, ‘Should I have spotted what was happening to us?’” Sue’s nightmare began in 2003 when she moved into her house in Sale, Greater Manchester, with her now ex-husband Tony* and Josh, then five. Collect / John Gladwin Symptoms: Sue with Josh in 2006 At the time, she was launching her construction business so her days were spent travelling from site to site. At night, with Josh in bed, she’d sit in her office, just yards from the boiler flue, finishing paperwork. Her dedication paid off and, in 2004, she was nominated for North West Entrepreneur of the Year. But all this hard work came at a price – or so she thought. “I constantly felt ill,” she says. “I was tired, I’d often feel sick and get headaches that I couldn’t get rid of. I put it down to stress because I was working six days a week. “Now I know I had the classic symptoms of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.” By early 2005, Sue’s health began to deteriorate and she started experiencing regular dizzy spells, nausea and fatigue. She went to the doctor who found nothing and agreed she was probably working too hard. But Sue wasn’t the only one who was ill. Josh, now seven, frequently woke with a stomach ache. Sue took him to the doctor, who did tests, but found nothing wrong and hinted her son might be making it up. “He’d wake up with a stomach ache so often I’d think, ‘Here we go!’ And by the time he arrived home from school, he was fit and well again – that made me think he was trying it on.” Sue’s assistant Emily* also suffered. One day while the family were out of the house, she was working in Sue’s office but soon felt so unwell she called 999. Salmonella was suspected. In fact, both Josh and Emily were suffering from CO poisoning. When Josh left the house every day and fresh air hit his lungs, the CO would disperse and he’d feel better. When Emily worked for long periods in Sue’s office, she became ill. Sue, however, who worked from home, was the victim of constant poisoning. “By the end of the year, I seemed to have a constant headache,” she says. “I was popping paracetamol like there was no tomorrow and I always felt like I was coming down with flu. “I was achy and tired and at one point, I remember sitting on the floor in my office with my head in my hands and just sobbing because I didn’t think I could go any more.” Collect / John Gladwin Innocent: Josh at the time he was poisoned Her symptoms were sporadic – she’d feel better for a few days and then the headaches and tiredness hit her. “I just kept going. I thought I was run-down or had a cold, or was stressed or overworking. My doctor said I was fine, so I wasn’t going to make a fuss.” But in spring 2006, Sue started to suffer chest pains and, after collapsing on her front doorstep, she was rushed to hospital in an ambulance and kept in for a week while doctors did tests. “I was terrified,” she says. “It felt like someone was sitting on my chest and I couldn’t breathe. I had pins and needles in my arm and I was convinced I was having a heart attack. I lay in the ambulance thinking, ‘I’m going to die’.” But over the next six days, it became clear that the doctors had no idea what was causing Sue’s symptoms. She had blood tests, ECGs, chest X-rays, an echocardiogram and, at one point, she ran on a treadmill while doctors monitored her pulse and heart rate. Her pains were continuous and the only thing that gave any relief was glyceryl trinitrate, a spray used to treat angina – even though doctors had ruled it out. Medical staff were stumped, so much so that three different consultants asked Sue if she used cocaine. They just couldn’t understand why a fit and healthy woman in her early 30s, with no history of heart disease, would present with classic symptoms of a cocaine user. “I’ve never taken drugs in my life – I was so shocked,” she says. Sue left hospital with no answers. Over that summer, she noticed she was becoming more forgetful. “I was convinced I was starting with dementia,” she says. She’d miss appointments, struggle with facts she’d recently been told, and start the same conversation several times. “Then, in November 2006, the warranty on the house’s boiler expired so Sue called British Gas and booked a service. The heating engineer had only been there for only a few minutes when he ordered Sue and Emily to evacuate straight away. He had discovered dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. “He immediately disconnected the boiler, opened the windows and took the floor up to trace the path of the pipes under the house,” says Sue. “He found that the flue on the middle floor was leaking fatal levels of gas into the house due to the wrong equipment being fitted. “Basically, if my husband hadn’t insisted on opening the windows every night, my family would not have survived. “Googling my symptoms they were all linked to CO poisoning and a neurologist later confirmed my fears.” Engineers were called in to investigate before the boiler was immediately replaced. According to the Carbon Monoxide And Gas Safety Society, there have been at least 677 deaths from CO poisoning in the UK in the last 19 years and over 4,500 near- misses. Yet they believe that many more people go undiagnosed. “We suspect around 4.5million people are being affected by CO poisoning,” says the charity’s director Stephanie Trotter. “But it’s difficult to prove because the gas leaves the body so quickly. “A lot of people are currently suffering symptoms but soldiering on because GPs have turned them away, telling them to go home, keep warm and get some rest. “Too many people live with low-level poisoning without realising it. Headaches, vomiting and tiredness are just a few of the immediate symptoms, but in the long term there can be brain damage, memory loss and a change in personality.” Because Josh and Sue’s husband spent most of their time out of the house, neither sustained any long-term effects although Josh still has mild trouble concentrating. But Sue is still struggling to cope with her neurological damage. “My life has changed radically,” she says. “Before the poisoning, I was healthy. Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with Tietze syndrome – swelling of the rib cartilage – and fibromyalgia. I get migraines too. “I have major problems with my memory. I can’t retain any information – it’s so bad I had to give up my business in 2007. “Sometimes it’s embarrassing because I’ll forget what people have said to me and I’ll ask questions they’ve already answered. Other times it feels like I’m losing my mind. Just after the diagnosis, I remember getting into the car, looking at the keys and thinking, ‘What should I do with these?’ “Christmas 2008, I bought and wrapped the same present for Josh three times – I couldn’t remember buying it.” Sue was referred to the memory clinic at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester. After a series of tests, the doctor told her honestly: “If I hadn’t met you and had your results in front of me, I’d guess you were over 80.” She was told she had symptoms of a patient with severe vascular dementia. She’s experienced month-long bouts of unexplained nausea as well as periods of disturbed vision. Both have been connected with the CO. “I’ve had to change my life drastically,” she says. “Losing my business was awful, but I didn’t want to stop working so I’m now a horse photographer.” Sue called in lawyers and over a few years, a case was made against the builders of her house. But it wasn’t until 2013 that they finally admitted liability for negligence in fitting the flue incorrectly. Sue, her ex-husband and son were awarded a five-figure payout. But no one has been deemed responsible for her illnesses. “I was told it was too difficult to prove,” she says. Christi and Bobby’s mum Sharon Wood is now working with Thomas Cook to raise awareness of CO poisoning and Sue also wants to warn of this silent killer. “It kills 50 people a year in this country, but it’s still not on our radar,” she says. “My family was lucky, we escaped with our lives. But someone out there is breathing it in now – they’re being slowly poisoned – and the scary thing is they don’t even know it.” * Names have been changed


How to avoid CO leaks in your home

Get your gas appliances and flues regularly checked by a Gas Safe (formerly Corgi) registered engineer. Call one out if the flame on your cooker, fire or boiler is lazy yellow or orange (it should be crisp and blue), if you see soot or dark staining around or on appliances, if pilot lights frequently blow out, or if there’s increased condensation inside windows. Fit an audible carbon monoxide alarm in each room with a gas appliance. Available from around £15 at your local DIY store, supermarket or from your energy supplier. Ensure it’s officially approved to BS:EN50291:2001 or BS:EN50291:2010 and has a Kitemark. Don’t just rely on “black spot” detectors that change colour when CO is present – they won’t make a sound to wake you up… then it may be too late.

Common symptoms of CO poisoning you need to watch for

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Exhaustion
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Collapse without necessarily losing consciousness, followed by unconsciousness and even the risk of death

If you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Get fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows, turn off gas appliances and leave the house.
  • See your GP immediately or go to hospital – tell them you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. They can do blood or breath tests.
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