• Kyodo

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Paloma Industries Ltd. discovered the first case of fatal carbon monoxide poisoning involving one of its water heaters in 1991, sources said Saturday.

The first case, in Nagano Prefecture, was one of 17 carbon monoxide poisonings that killed 15 people between 1985 and last year, the sources said.

The revelation came a day after the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced the heater deaths.

The poisonings were caused by a defect in the exhaust fans in four types of water heaters — the PH-81F, PH-101F, PH-102F and PH-131F models — manufactured between 1980 and 1989.

The accidents were reported in Hokkaido, Nagano, Kanagawa, Osaka and Nara prefectures and in Tokyo.

In addition to the four, METI has ordered Paloma to inspect three other models — the PH-82F, PH-132F and PH-161F — similar to those involved in the poisonings and ordered gas companies to check them as well.

Paloma reported the 1991 Nagano case to METI in the following year and the ministry prepared a pamphlet to be distributed to the industry to warn of the product’s danger, the sources said.

METI did not take any measures to alert the public.

The accidents occurred when the water heaters’ exhaust fans, which take in air inside the house and expel exhaust outside, malfunctioned, according to METI.

Paloma Co., the parent of the manufacturer, said a probe into the Nagano accident found that a safety device in the product had been illegally altered during installation. The modification was apparently aimed at reducing electricity bills and prolonging the life of the heater.

In some cases, the heaters’ safety function was nullified by bridging certain terminals on a circuit board with metal wires, the company said. This would enable a heater to operate without an exhaust fan turning, it said.

Such a modification does not require extensive knowledge or skill, it said.

Paloma later found that five accidents had occurred in Hokkaido, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Nara and Osaka between 1992 and 2001 but did not take any drastic measures.

Investigations were reopened by the Metropolitan Police Department in Tokyo at the request of a family of a user who was killed in a March 1996 accident. Police found that the accident may have occurred due to a malfunction of such a water heater.

The ministry also ordered Paloma to set up a customer service office to deal with the problem and repair the heaters, as well as submit a report on how the accidents occurred.

Users of the seven types of water heaters will also be asked to check for themselves whether their exhaust fans are working properly until the company-led inspection is over.

By Saturday evening, Paloma’s Nagoya head office had been bombarded by more than 800 telephone inquiries as news of the accidents was reported by the media, company officials said.

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