Regrettably, children often become victims of their own curiosity or the carelessness, indifference, and ignorance of adults. “Among children under the age of 14, about 450 deaths each year are the result of residential fires, and most of these are children under the age of five,” says Dr. Natalie Lane, board-certified Pediatric Emergency Medicine specialist. “In fact, it’s the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury related deaths among that age group.”
According to Lane, who is the Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Children’s Medical Center in Augusta, GA, and Chief of the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at the Georgia Health Sciences University School of Medicine, most residential fires start in the kitchen—grease fires, towels too close to burners, unattended pots on the stove—or are related to smoking such as smoking in bed or smoldering ashes. In some cases, children themselves start fires as a result of being unattended around matches and lit candles.
The majority of pediatric burns are scald burns from hot liquids and contact burns from stovetops, open oven doors and hot irons. Usually lack of proper planning and oversight lead to unintentional burns in children so Lane offers the following preventive tips:
“When a child under the age of five dies in a residential fire, smoke detectors were not present in two-thirds of those cases,” says Lane. “The chance of dying in a residential fire is cut in half with the presence of smoke detectors, and the risk is reduced even further, by 82 percent, if both smoke detectors and a sprinkler system are in place.”
Lane suggests placing smoke detectors in each room of the house and advises replacing the batteries on a regular schedule—ideally every six months—to ensure they are working.
Additionally, parents should teach children how to vacate a building safely, such as keeping low to the floor, covering the mouth and nose with cloth, touching doors to identify where it’s hot and where it’s not, and knowing where the quickest escape route is based on where they are in the home.
Lower Hot Water Temperature
“Children, especially very young ones, have thin skin and as a result, are very susceptible to warm water temperatures,” Lane says. “A scald burn can occur a lot easier and quicker than most parents realize, and they don’t realize how much damage a scald burn can cause.”
The solution, according to Lane, is to lower the hot water heater temperature to below 120°. “This may be one of the least known child safety tips but the most effective in preventing scalding.”
Safeguard Your Kitchen
1. Create a danger zone
The stove and oven are very tempting to young children, particularly because they see their parents working in that area. But the risk of burning their hands and being scalded from grabbing at pots on the stovetop is very high for children, toddlers in particular.
Lane suggests taping off a line on the floor three feet around the stove and telling your children that between that line and the stove is a danger zone. Teach them to stay behind that line at all times, including when an adult is at the stove cooking.
2. “Potty” training
Parents need potty training, too. That is, they need to understand the safe way to handle pots on the stove when young children are in the home.
“It’s easy to forget how quickly a child can reach up and grab a pot, yet scald burns are a common result,” says Lane. “The child pulls the pot down and the contents spill on her body, creating painful scald burns.” She adds that microwaves present the same problem since often the microwave is in a position higher than the child is tall.
The solution is quite simple—place pots on back burners whenever possible, and always turn the handles inward so they don’t overhang the top of the stove. As for the microwave, it should be off limits to children shorter than door-level of the microwave. For older children who are allowed use of the microwave, they should have specific instructions and limitations on how to use it.
Pots on the stove also are a source of kitchen fires. “Never leave cooking unattended. If you have to step away, turn off the burner,” Lane says.
“In an instant something can go terribly wrong,” says Lane. “Unintentional burns in children are part carelessness and part lack of awareness on the part of the parent or guardian. Children are expected to act too senior for their age when in reality, they need considerable oversight. Kids don’t have the same dexterity and awareness, so adults must be diligent and recognize that children aren’t capable of making the right choices.”