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Unflued School Heaters – Text of Speech from Hansard

Many studies have demonstrated that exposure to heater exhaust gases and particulate matter is bad for people’s health. For example, it is responsible for the increased incidence and severity of asthma and respiratory irritation and the spread of the virus-borne diseases. Various components in the exhaust gases of unflued heaters have been identified as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, formaldehyde and nitrogen dioxide. These well-known carcinogens are systematically being dispersed into classrooms throughout our State, where they are being inhaled by vulnerable children. When we send our children to schools that have these heaters they are being poisoned. According to the NSW Health fact sheet entitled “Possible health effects of exposure to air pollutants”, health effects caused by exposure to air pollutants can occur immediately at the time of exposure or may be delayed. The detrimental effects also can depend upon the type and amount of pollutants to which someone is exposed. As with any risk factor, some people are more susceptible than others and can suffer health effects much more readily than others.

While NSW Health warns of the impact on children, the Department of Education and Training exposes children in its care to toxic air from unflued heaters. Carbon monoxide is difficult to detect as it is invisible and without smell or taste. But it can cause toxic effects in humans by depriving the body of oxygen and impairing thinking and reflexes. As honourable members will know, carbon monoxide poisoning has been a favourite method used by people who wish to commit suicide.

Carbon monoxide levels rise in environments where unflued gas heaters are in use, particularly over a number of hours in a day. A poorly installed heater or a heater in a room with a lack of fresh air or cross-flow ventilation can cause excessive levels of carbon monoxide, which can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Many people can experience flu-like symptoms with even moderate carbon monoxide exposure, while at lower levels of exposure susceptible people can also experience chest pain. Exposure to very high concentrations of carbon monoxide can result in death. People most susceptible to the health effects of carbon monoxide include those with heart disease, infants, unborn babies, the elderly and children. That is why building regulations do not allow unflued gas heaters to be installed in houses and that is why the Fire Brigade issues warnings every year after people have died in bedrooms with unflued heaters. If the building regulations do not allow unflued gas heaters in houses why do our schools continue to use and fit them?

Nitrogen dioxide can also be difficult to detect as it too is invisible and tasteless, but it does have a strong odour. Nitrogen dioxide levels will rise in a room where an unflued gas heater is in use. Breathing in high levels of nitrogen dioxide can cause irritation of the respiratory tract and shortness of breath. People with asthma and other respiratory diseases are particularly susceptible to the effects of exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Children may suffer more often from cold symptoms or asthma attacks if exposed over a prolonged period. New classrooms slated to be built under the Building the Education Revolution Program need to be built properly, with healthy heating systems installed in all new classrooms.

Five years ago South Australia removed unflued gas heaters from its State schools, while in Western Australia such heaters were phased out by the end of last year. Victoria made its wise decision back in the 1970s not to install unflued gas heaters in its classrooms. The Australian Capital Territory Government also has chosen not to install them in government schools. Family First will support Dr John Kaye’s motion for the tabling of documents relating to the study by the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research of unflued gas heaters in public school classrooms, particularly due to the health risks to children.

Ravitch acknowledged some of the criticism about the one-sided nature of some of the panels

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