• Portuguese Deaths

    Back in the early 1980s, when I was reporter and presenter on TV Eye – a nationally networked UK current affairs programme – I was sent to Portugal to investigate a series of mysterious deaths of British holidaymakers in Portuguese resorts.
    The deaths had all occurred over the space of a couple of months and all involved holidaymakers, often golfers, who had escaped the British winter for some Portuguese sunshine.
    Accommodation for the summer trade was often empty during the winter; chalets were often built alongside golf courses and British golfers were a welcome boost to trade. The tourist operators, though, as well as the Portuguese and British authorities, became increasingly concerned at the unexplained deaths.
    The deaths all had common features. They usually occurred in the early evening, often after a round of golf. The victims typically exhibited no symptoms prior to collapsing for apparently no reason and dying within a few minutes.
    One typical case was that of a middle-aged British couple who had returned to their accommodation after a round of golf. As the sun went down and the temperature dropped, they had closed the windows and the wife had apparently gone to run a bath. She was discovered naked lying beside her husband on the living-room floor; it seemed that they had died within a minute or two of each other.
    The Portuguese doctors were totally flummoxed by these deaths. The only symptom common to all the deaths was that the victims all had a rosy colour, perhaps because of the sunshine they had enjoyed. The death certificates variously ascribed the deaths to sun stroke, food poisoning and, in the case of the golfing couple and reflecting the wife’s nakedness, to “excessive love-making”.
    The British media were equally mystified. The finger was pointed at lax Portuguese building standards and it was speculated that there may have been gas leaks which were responsible. The Portuguese authorities were adamant, however, that there was no sign of the gas supply being defective in any way, nor were the symptoms consistent with gas poisoning.
    By the time I arrived with a film crew, the tourist trade for winter golfers had come to a premature halt. I began my inquiries when most possibilities had been dismissed.
    I could place no reliance on the Portuguese death certificates. They were so much at variance with each other and in some cases so fanciful that they were completely unhelpful. The state of Portuguese medicine at the time was illustrated by my discovery of organs taken from one victim during an autopsy stored in an empty Nescafe tin in a shed!
    It was clear to me, however, that the victims had died from some kind of traumatic cessation of their ability to breathe properly. I was eventually able, following considerable research of medical histories and of meteorological records for those couple of months, to establish what had happened.
    All the cases seemed to involve the use of some form of heating – sometimes just to warm the room or to heat water for a bath or shower. On the date of each death, the external temperature had dropped suddenly and an inversion of the usual temperature layers had occurred; colder air had dropped suddenly closer to ground level.
    The holiday-makers had therefore closed windows that would normally have remained open in summer; the heaters had all been properly flued, but the flues were not high or long enough for winter conditions. The result was that the perfectly normal exhaust gases from the flames of space or water heaters had, as a result of the abnormal drop in outside temperatures, cooled before they could escape into the atmosphere; they had then fallen back down the flue and on to the flame, denying the flame the oxygen it needed to operate normally.
    The result? The flame produced carbon monoxide – a colourless and odourless gas that is heavier than air. As the level of carbon monoxide built up, it would eventually reach the level of someone sitting or reclining. The lack of air would cause that person to collapse. A potential rescuer, dropping to floor level to help, would also lose consciousness straight away. Pinkness of the skin is a classic symptom of death by carbon monoxide.
    I am prompted to recount this story by the reports of the family of five who nearly died in West Auckland last week from what was reported as “gas poisoning” arising from “petrol-generator fumes”. Carbon monoxide is not poisonous in the normal sense. Nor does the fuel – gas, petrol, wood – that produces the flame have anything to do with it. The records show a case in a tenement building in Glasgow, for example, where someone died when exhaust gases from a coal fire in the room above cooled and fell back down the shared chimney into an open fireplace without a fire. All that is needed is poor ventilation, coupled with a flame – irrespective of what fuels it – that is denied oxygen.
    Every year or so, we read of similar cases – in caravans, boats, holiday accommodation. These tragedies will not stop until they are accurately reported, so that we understand their real cause.
    Bryan Gould
    2 December 2012
    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 4 December.

  • The Wilful Obstinacy of Europe’s Leaders

    The first duty of political leaders is to deal with the world as it is and not how they want it to be. Yet too many of our global leaders insist that the world should accommodate to them and not the other way round.

    Nowhere is this more true than in today’s Europe. Not only are Europe’s leaders grappling with problems they created themselves; they are wilfully refusing to learn the lessons of their past failures. We will all pay the price of their ideological tunnel vision.

    Europe’s leaders created the initial problem by focusing exclusively on a political goal – the creation of a single European super-state – and ignoring economic common sense. The single-currency euro zone was never going to work. A single currency requires a single monetary policy – and Europe’s weaker economies were never going to live with monetary conditions framed to suit the interests of stronger economies like Germany.

    But they were induced to take the gamble by the implied promise that the strong economies would help them out if they got into trouble. They survived for as long as times were good; and they tried to keep pace by taking on extra debt. But when the crunch came, the strong economies reneged on their promise.

    The result? A debt crisis that has engulfed Greece and Portugal, to a lesser extent Ireland and Spain, and now – potentially – Italy. But instead of recognising their mistakes, Europe’s leaders have continued to ignore economic realities. They have treated debtor countries – not as victims of a failed political doctrine – but as moral lepers who must don hair shirts and pay for their sins.

    Even more sadly, they have insisted that their political goals should take priority and be reinforced. Far from acknowledging that the single currency did not wash away economic differences across Europe, but exacerbated them by trying to suppress them, the remedy they now contemplate is an even more determined bid to create a single European state by moving further towards economic union.

    What they obstinately refuse to recognise is that economic weakness cannot be wished away. Even if it is buried in a political framework so that it is out of sight, it will simply manifest itself in another way. Even if Greece or Portugal or even Italy became simply provinces in a wider Europe governed from Berlin, their lack of competitiveness could not be hidden; it would just mean that they became depressed regions, with no prospect of seeking their own salvation.

    They would have no chance of pursuing a monetary or exchange rate policy more suited to their needs. They would have to rely on decisions made in Berlin or Paris; and those decisions are unlikely to be helpful. German and French taxpayers, whose patience has already worn thin, would have little tolerance of regions whose weakness was seen as threatening living standards right across the continent.

    But the people of Greece and other debtor countries not only have to put up with the loss of self-government and lectures about their profligacy. Remarkably, the measures that Europe’s leaders now insist upon will make matters worse, not better – not just for the debtor countries, but for all of Europe and the rest of us as well.

    As the Irishman said when asked for directions, “I wouldn’t start from here.” But what Europe’s leaders should do is accept that they have to start from here, and to prescribe policies that offer a chance of turning things around.

    What they should do is cut Greece loose from the euro so that the Greeks can devalue sharply and then – on the basis of improved competitiveness – trade their way to generating the wealth needed to pay back their debts.

    Yet, Europe’s leaders insist that Greece – already going backwards at a rapid rate, with national output dropping like a stone – must cut a further hundred thousand public-sector jobs, slash salaries and pensions, cut health spending, raise taxes and sell off assets. It is impossible to see how – by slashing and burning – an economy that is already overburdened by debt, and with no capacity to service that debt, let alone repay it, can hope to work and trade its way out of its problems.

    And that problem will be compounded as other debtor countries are given the same advice. The whole European economy faces a bleak future if that advice is taken.

    Does any of this matter to us, or is it a problem for the Europeans alone? If the European economy tips back into recession, and if European bank failures were to provoke a renewed financial crisis, we would all suffer. Global liquidity would dry up, interest rates would rise sharply, markets would contract.

    But there would be longer-term implications as well. We might, for example, pause to consider, in the trans-Tasman context, whether a currency union as advocated by some would really be the panacea it is said to be.

    And, in case we feel a sense of superior wisdom when we contemplate European difficulties, let us not delude ourselves. If by some miracle of geography we were to find ourselves in Europe, our government would support the same failed nostrums as are insisted upon by Europe’s leaders and for the same ideological reasons.

    Bryan Gould

    23 September 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 26 September.