The hidden dangers of gas fireplaces
Shari Christiansen will never forget that cold October day when her 13-month old son Brandon started screaming.
“It was the worst scream I’ve ever heard. It was just bloodcurdling,” Christiansen says.
The toddler had scampered up to the gas fireplace in the family’s Spokane, Wash., home and touched the scalding hot glass.
"He was stuck, hands pressed up against the glass,” his mom remembers. “And I just ran as fast as I could and I just grabbed him and peeled him off.”
Brandon had third-degree burns on both hands. In the year or so since the accident, he’s had three skin grafts. A fourth operation is scheduled for next month.
"It's horrible," Christiansen says."You never want to see your kid go through something like that."
It’s estimated that hundreds of kids in this country are seriously burned each year by the super-heated glass on gas fireplaces. That glass can reach 500 degrees or more.
“These burns are devastating because they don’t heal well and they cause of lot of scars,” explains Dr. Mike Gittelman, an emergency room pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “They can be life-altering.”
Toddlers are naturally attracted to flames. They move so quickly, parents can't always stop them in time. But the danger doesn't go away as soon as the fire is turned off. The glass stays extremely hot long after the flames are gone.
Just a few weeks ago in Seattle, 9-month old Mackenzie Spellman burned himself on a gas fireplace that had been off for more than an hour. He was lucky; the blisters on all of his fingers will heal.
“You never think it’s going to happen to you,” says Erika Spellman. “And I know my husband and I are great parents and it happened to us. So you just have to be careful because these little guys are so fast.”
Pediatrician Beth Ebel is director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle. She sees these burns all winter long.
“It breaks our hearts,” she says. “We take care of child after child, those little burned palms.”
At first glance, it would seem that these terrible accidents could be prevented with better supervision. Dr. Ebel cautions against blaming the parents who may be unaware of the danger. In fact, they may think the unit is safe because the fire is contained and not accessible to their child.
“These burns occur in a split second,” she explains, “and no parent can watch an inquisitive toddler every instant.”
Safety experts believe this is a design problem that must be addressed by the manufactures.
Right now there are no federal regulations that require manufacturers to protect kids (or anyone else) from the hot fireplace glass. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been asked to do that. But right now, the CPSC is allowing the industry to develop a fix.
“We feel like they are on the right path,” says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. “And they can do it a lot faster than we could via the regulatory process.”
The industry has proposed new safety standards that would require all new gas fireplaces to come with a barrier that keeps hands and fingers away from the hot glass. In most cases, this would be a screen of some kind that attaches to the frame around the glass.
“We’re encouraged because we think we’ve come up with a really good physical barrier,” says Jack Goldman, president of the Hearth, Barbecue & Patio Association. “You will not get a burn from touching the screen, even though maybe an inch away is the glass that is hot.”
If the standard is approved, installers would be required to attach the screen or other barrier that comes with the fireplace before they leave the house. These screens would not block the view of the flames, so the fireplace has the same ambiance – it’s just a lot safer.
Two big companies already offer safety screens. A few years ago, Hearth and Home Technologies made safety screens standard of all of its gas fireplaces.
“Our goal is not only to keep little hands safe, but to create consumer awareness around fireplace safety,” says company PR manager Matt Hareldson. “We strongly encourage other manufacturers to follow our lead in this effort.”
The Lennox Safety Guard was developed to settle a class action lawsuit. It’s available for both new units and those already installed. (Click here to order your free Safety Guard.)
The consumer advocates I’ve spoken to prefer a barrier that’s part of the fireplace, so it does not need to be installed and cannot be removed. But they seem willing to watch and wait to see if the industry’s proposed fix works.
“We’ll need to see if these screens are being attached by the installer and if not, we’ll have to push for federal regulations,” says Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America.
If you already have a gas fireplace, burn prevention experts encourage you to buy a free-standing screen that goes in front of your fireplace. Most fireplace shops sell them for $100 or less. They’re not perfect, but they’re better than nothing.
The Christiansen’s now have a barrier in front of their fireplace. Shari encourages other parents to realize the danger and guard against it.
"I don't want to see another child go through what Brandon is going through. I want everybody to learn from this and protect their children."