Zane Gbangbola died in February 2014 after his family home in Chertsey, Surrey, was engulfed by water. He had fallen ill about 10 days earlier and his parents believe he was poisoned by toxic gases seeping out of an adjacent landfill site.
Kye Gbangbola, 50, who was left paralysed after breathing in toxic fumes, and Nicole Lawler, 38, believe the authorities have failed to investigate the potential threat from the landfill site. Police have said Zane died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
“We are not claiming compensation. There is not a bag of money at the end of this for us,” Lawler said. “We just want the death certificate, but we also want the truth about what happened to our son. Everything in our life has been destroyed. Everything has been obliterated.”
While the Legal Aid Agency ruled the family did not meet the statutory requirements for funding, the public authorities attending the six-week inquest will have barristers paid for from the public purse or from taxpayer-funded legal insurance. Even the coroner will have his own counsel, also paid out of public funds, because the case is so complex.
Kye Gbangbola said: “I don’t understand why as grieving parents we have to go up against the might of the state, with their lawyers funded from public expense, while publicly funded legal representation is denied to us. It is a disgrace.”
The events of February 8, the night Zane died, are the subject of fierce dispute.
An initial post-mortem examination was inconclusive and no carbon monoxide was found in the house in the hours after his death, according to fire service tests. Although Zane did have some carboxyhaemoglobin in his blood — which can indicate carbon monoxide poisoning — it was at a level that would have no appreciable effect.
The family were initially told that carbon monoxide had been ruled out and that hydrogen cyanide had been detected.
However, when they launched a campaign to highlight the risks of gases leaking from landfill sites, police said in June 2014 that experts had concluded carbon monoxide poisoning was the cause of death — despite the carboxyhaemoglobin level of just 8% in Zane’s blood. Levels of 50% or more are typically fatal. Most people normally have levels of 1%-8%.
The parents commissioned one of the country’s leading toxicologists to examine the official findings. His report, which will be presented at the inquest, found there were no obvious symptoms to suggest carbon monoxide poisoning and that levels in the blood were too low to indicate it was to blame.
Stephanie Trotter, president and director of the Carbon Monoxide and Gas Safety Society, also believes carbon monoxide poisoning is an unlikely cause. “It is the oddest case I have ever come across where the authorities say it is carbon monoxide poisoning and one strongly suspects it is not,” she said.
After Zane’s death, police seized a petrol-powered pump from the house. Zane’s parents say they used seven electric pumps to protect the property during the floods and, apart from a brief test, the petrol-driven pump was not used.
This may be challenged at the inquest, because if — as they insist — the pump was not in operation, there is no other identifiable source of the gas.
In 2010 an independent report on a neighbouring property warned of a “potential risk from landfill gas”.
Surrey county council says the only landfill was “rubble and soils” after mineral extraction, which would be unlikely to pose any significant threat to public health. Zane’s parents want tests on possible gases and investigations into the potential contaminants in the landfill material.
The inquest will examine whether hydrogen cyanide was present in the house. Zane was not tested for its presence until 12 weeks after his death and it was found in non-fatal levels in his blood. Cyanide is not stable in blood samples, though, depleting over time.
However, a report filed by an Environment Agency official who attended the scene reported hydrogen cyanide levels of 25,000ppm (parts per million). Inhalation of 2,000ppm causes death within a minute.
Yet the report did not cite any official reading and the fire service recorded far less dangerous levels of 10ppm.
Spelthorne borough council, which covers Chertsey, said it had two barristers working on the inquest, paid from a legal insurance policy. The Environment Agency said it would be represented at the inquest by a junior counsel.
Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which was treating Zane when he died, could not confirm whether it had instructed counsel.
The Ministry of Justice said inquests were designed so that people without legal knowledge could participate.
read the full article in The Sunday Times here >>