Toddlers Suffer Severe Burns From Broiling Fireplace Glass, as Businesses Write Their Own Safety Rules

Marin Montgomery was a few days shy of her first birthday when she stumbled into the glass front of a gas fireplace and suffered second- and third-degree burns.

Days shy of her first birthday, Marin Montgomery stumbled into the glass of her family’s fireplace. The pane was so sizzling — hot enough to cause third-degree burns at the slightest touch — that the toddler severely scorched her hands, arms and face.

It happened four winters ago but for her mother, Deirdre Wooldridge, the memories are fresh: of melted skin sticking to the glass, Marin’s agonized screams even after morphine shots and painful surgery to graft skin from the toddler’s groin to her left hand.

Marin was one of the more than 2,000 children ages 5 and under who, according to federal estimates, have suffered burns from the glass enclosures of gas fireplaces since 1999.

While everyone knows the danger of an open flame, many fail to recognize the risk from the superheated glass. It is an “insidious and unappreciated hazard,” said Carol Pollack-Nelson, a psychologist formerly with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and an expert witness in a case against a major fireplace manufacturer.

There is no government mandate to protect or warn consumers about the risk from the glass of gas fireplaces, which in recent years have been installed by the millions as cleaner alternatives to wood-burning hearths.

Instead, the industry polices itself under a voluntary standard that allows the glass to reach a peak temperature of 500 degrees. The limit is meant to keep the glass from cracking, not to prevent people from getting burned. The standard, written by a business-dominated group, doesn’t require a screen to prevent contact with the glass. Rather, it relies on warnings that many consumers never see.

The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Assn., a trade group for fireplace makers, says it is doing it its part to promote awareness with a safety brochure provided on its website and at fireplace stores.

However, of seven retailers visited by FairWarning in four cities: Los Angeles, Sacramento, Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C. area — none carried the brochure.

Many in the industry argue that the dangers of a fireplace are so obvious that keeping kids safe is simply a matter of good parenting and common sense.

However, a leading manufacturer, Hearth & Home Technologies, has taken steps to protect consumers by attaching a mesh safety screen on all of its glass-enclosed fireplaces. The screen “is a huge help,” said Joel Ginsberg, a division manager with the Lakeville, Minn.,-based company. “If you touch the screen, you reduce the risk of a serious burn significantly,” he said. “If you touch the glass, you can potentially leave skin on the glass.” According to some industry observers, the company began using safety screens several years ago after a child related to a company executive was burned on the superheated glass. Hearth & Home representatives would not confirm or deny the report.

Awkward, endlessly curious and leading with their hands as they explore their surroundings, toddlers are uniquely vulnerable. Hand burns may permanently affect their range of motion. Fortunately, most end up like Marin — the December, 2006, accident in the house her family was renting in Elk Grove, Calif., left the toddler with some scars but otherwise fully recovered. Even then, healing comes at a high price in physical pain, parental anguish and medical costs that can run into the six figures.

There are other costs, too. Wooldridge, for example, lost her job as a real estate appraiser due to the demands of caring for her suffering child — including cleaning and bandaging Marin’s hands and following her around to make sure she didn’t break the blisters.

“They’re producing something that’s outrageously hot and putting it at a perfect height for infants,” Wooldridge said. Throughout the ordeal, “I kept thinking, you know what? There should be some kind of label or something.”

A recent photo of Marin Montgomery, now 5, with her mother Deidre Wooldridge. (Photo by Elise Craig.)

In 2006, Wisconsin lawyer Paul Bucher lost his bid to become the state’s attorney general, but the defeat wasn’t his worst experience of the campaign. That came as his wife was giving a campaign speech at a hotel with their toddler, Anna, and a babysitter in tow. Exploring the lobby, Anna planted both of her hands on the glass of the fireplace. As the babysitter pulled her away, the child’s melted skin stuck to the glass.

“She was only two and saw the fire, and was intrigued by it,” Bucher said. The fireplace “was right on the wall and totally accessible.”

“I remember crying my eyes out” at the hospital, he recalled. “I was just sobbing when they were busting the blisters. It was heart-wrenching.”

As has been the case with other product hazards, litigation may force change. Wooldridge and her family settled a lawsuit that accused the fireplace maker of failing to disclose the risk of the unguarded glass. Bucher settled a case against the hotel, which he said has since put a barrier in front of the fireplace.

In a proposed class action settlement, a top fireplace maker, Lennox International, has agreed to provide safety screens, free of charge, to hundreds of thousands of owners of its fireplaces. Under terms of the deal, granted preliminary approval Jan. 6 by a federal judge in San Francisco, the company will also provide warning stickers to apply to the fireplace switch or remote control.

The settlement would resolve a case filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco that accused Lennox of failing to guard against serious burns or adequately disclose the danger. Lennox did not admit liability in agreeing to settle. Company officials have declined to comment.

Falling temperatures typically bring a procession of tiny victims to hospital emergency rooms. “I usually admit 10 to 12 injuries per year because of this,” said Dr. Lee Faucher, a surgeon at the University of Wisconsin Burn Center.

Medical staff at Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento, where Marin’s skin grafts were performed, treated 25 children with fireplace burns in an 18-month period, according to a paper presented at a national burn conference in March, 2009. “Supervision of a child is inadequate prevention,” said the paper, which called for use of a screen or guard.

At British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, Dr. Cynthia Verchere, a pediatric plastic surgeon, said one to two dozen burn victims turn up in the emergency room each year. She compared the exposed glass to “having your oven on…with the door open in the middle of your living room.”

Said Verchere: “It is amazing to me that there’s no rules about it, considering what we do have rules about.”

*****

It may seem there are government regulations for everything but, as the fireplace glass example demonstrates, that’s hardly the case. In fact, most standards for machinery, appliances and other consumer goods are written by committees drawing most of their members from affected businesses.

Drafted in obscurity, voluntary standards can have a significant effect on consumers. Often, they get the blessing of influential standards organizations and even become law by being adopted into municipal codes and state or federal regulations.

The guidelines serve a variety of purposes: reducing liability exposure, leveling the playing field by setting minimum levels of performance, ensuring that components made by different manufacturers match up. Safety isn’t the only or even the main concern.

“The problem is that voluntary self-regulation often works more to benefit the manufacturers than it does to benefit the final consumer, “ remarked David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard University School of Public Health. “There’s no question industry cares some,” he said. “They just may not care enough — especially if public health and safety conflicts with a more immediate goal such as making money.”

Manufacturers and other interested U.S. and Canadian businesses came together to draft the fireplace standard in the 1990s, as concern about energy efficiency and wood-smoke pollution fueled demand for gas fireplaces that would serve as heating, and not just decorative appliances. A technical committee on gas appliances and a fireplace subcommittee took charge of the effort.

The influential American National Standards Institute certified the gas fireplace rules in 1998. That meant the drafting process met the institute’s thresholds for fairness and balance — such as a requirement that various interests be included and no single group have more than one-third of the votes.

As a practical matter, however, there has been little involvement by consumer advocates, who often lack the money, time or expertise to participate in standards committees.

A spokesman for the technical committee declined to provide a list of members and affiliations, saying the information was confidential. But interviews and documents show that most participants have come from affected businesses such as gas utilities, fireplace makers and installers.

The committee is “very careful to look out for safety,” said Tony James, president of Woodbridge Fireplace of Brampton, Ont., one of the participants. “We’re constantly trying to make these standards better.”

Toward that end, the members have discussed, but not approved, amending the standard to require protection against glass burns. An industry consultant, testifying in the Lennox class action, suggested that members had not required such measures because government officials had not forced the issue.

“I think the primary thing that committee relies on is that CPSC (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) has not required them to control that temperature,” said Paul Tiegs, president of OMNI-Test Laboratories, Inc., in a deposition. Tiegs did not return phone calls.

A working group of panel members is revisiting the issue, a spokesman said. Recently, the standard was amended to provide an amped-up warning depicting a hand close to flames and the words: “Hot Glass Will Cause Burns.”

Fireplace makers recently adopted this warning label but the labels do not appear on fireplaces, so many consumers never see them.

Among engineers and safety experts, there is wide agreement on the need to design products to eliminate or guard against hazards, rather than rely on warnings to do the job.

“You really want to make the world safe for people,” said Hemenway, “rather than train people to be eternally vigilant, which they can’t be.”

Warnings on fireplaces may be particularly ineffective because consumers rarely see them. Typically, they are hidden behind a panel covering the pilot light, or in an owner’s manual that few read and many never see. That’s because the manual goes to the buyer of the fireplace—in many cases, a building contractor or the home’s original owner—rather than to the second owner or a renter, like Deirdre Wooldridge.

For its part, the CPSC has no plans to address the issue, chief spokesman Scott Wolfson said. Under federal law, the commission is supposed to defer to voluntary standards unless there is proof they aren’t effective in preventing injuries or deaths.

But the Lennox agreement to provide safeguards could encourage smaller rivals to follow suit.

It’s wrong to “sticker over” a hazard of this type, said R. David Pittle, a former commissioner of the CPSC. “What you really need is a product that is designed so that predictable experiences don’t end in tragedy.”

Patrick Corcoran contributed to this report.

This article, published on Jan. 11, was updated on Jan. 12.

Print Print  

20 comments to “Toddlers Suffer Severe Burns From Broiling Fireplace Glass, as Businesses Write Their Own Safety Rules”

  1. josh

    After looking at all of the websites mentioned here I’ve determined the solutions all suck. Most offer a second glass screen that is marketed as decorative and have a caveat that you can still receive skin burns with it. Sounds like there is a market opportunity here.

  2. josh

    Mike Dorsey your website sucks. Nowhere does it tell you on the home page you are about safety screens.

  3. Mike Dorsey

    Here is a website, http://www.fireplacesafetyscreen.com, that provides more information on burn statistics and one solution for people with older model gas fireplaces.

  4. TallMagnolia

    I have to strongly disagree with your conclusion although almost everything about your post is brilliant. Your solution is clearly the safest and I think everyone should follow your example. However, welding is a task that requires training, experience, skill and equipment that most of us don’t have. There may be alternatives but what’s wrong with mandating that all of that be done and installed on these appliances? If we don’t make it a law, even if offered as an option when buying a gas fireplace, people still won’t choose to do it because they can save some money or they are uninformed or it’s simply their right to choose.

    Sadly, Danielle’s poor infant was burned at a friends house all due to a lack of information and communication by all parties. I would bet if you asked the owners of the fireplace if these screens should be required, after that horrible incident, I bet they would say “yes”.

  5. Laura B

    Common sense people. It is about personal responsability and using your brain. I have a two year old and a gas fireplace. As soon as I moved into this home 6 years ago I bought a screen for the front of it and then I took it one step further upon the birth of my child and had my husband weld tabs onto so that we could screw it permanently into the wall so that it could not be moved. Quit playing the blame game and use your heads, its fire, obviously glass next to fire gets hot.

  6. Jay G

    I think the main point here is this. Not as many kids injure themselves or as grievously with fireplaces without glass. This is due (imho) to the scattering of the heat. As you get closer it gets hotter. At some point you move away from the heat. With glass, the heat dispersion is greatly effected. Most of the heat collects at the glass but not as much is passed on as radiant heat. This gives a child or an unintelligent adult a false sense of security near the glass. Anytime there is this disconnect between environmental danger and our ability to register it in consumer products, a warning is needed. In extreme cases re-design is required. After looking at my daughter and re-examining the photos, I would vote this an extreme case and opt for re-design. C’mon this is america…we can build it better. At the very least this should be educational requirements for parents, just like learning about child car seats. Thanks for your time. God bless.

  7. Tim

    A fireplace is for generating heat. Making it like an oven door is pointless. Oven doors are meant to contain heat because you use an oven to cook food. The same for a dryer and a dishwasher. If you have an issue watching your children then maybe you shouldn’t be starting a fire at all. I wonder how many people die every year from house fires with the same reckless behavior. Sadly I doubt these people are intelligent enough to even read a label in the first place.

    FIRE BAD HURT OW FIRE

  8. Chris F.

    All products need constant improvement based on real world experience. If many hundreds of kids experience severe burns every year due to the lack of a simple screen, then mandate the darn screen!! The cost would seem to be minuscule compared to the pain, suffering, and medical bills of injured kids. Basic economics, not to mention morality, works in the favor of so many safety rules, although you’d never know that from listening to blowhard pundits in the US.

    By the way, the guy invoking Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” IS an idiot. It’s poor product designs that need to evolve, not my ten-month-old daughter.

  9. Fred Stephens

    Wow, you’re a real idiot. Your Hemmingway quote goes against your point does it not?

    A few points: #1: Glass front gas fireplaces are large appliances. They are not traditional wood burning fireplaces, which is why glass front gas fireplaces cause many more injuries to children in comparison to traditional wood burning fireplaces. Why is that? Since we live in the US, people presume this large appliance is designed to be safe, much like a dishwasher, oven, or dryer. Why not allow steam to escape a dishwasher? Why bother with double panes of glass on the oven door? Well, there are safety standards for these appliances.

    Point #2: Glass front gas fireplace appliances are the most dangerous to small children. Therefore, no one really cares. If it were adults getting injured, I bet something would be done about it.

    Point #3: The metal surround or border of the appliance is designed to reach a much lower temperature than the large glass front for safety reasons. The large glass can get as hot as possible as long as it does not cause shattering, again for safety reasons. Makes sense you me… Point here is that if the law required, they would make it safe…it’s within their capability. This is a growth industry after all.

  10. Harold Callahan

    “There is no government mandate to protect or warn consumers about the risk from the glass of gas fireplaces, which in recent years have been installed by the millions as cleaner alternatives to wood-burning hearths. ”

    Two words: Nanny State

    “You really want to make the world safe for people,” said Hemenway, “rather than train people to be eternally vigilant, which they can’t be.”

    Four Words: Survival of the Fittest

  11. Danielle

    Yes my 10 month old crawled away from me. We were in a home I am in often. I did not realize that the fireplace had been turned on because you could not see it when you entered the room. I sat my baby down with some toys and was helping my other child with something when the accident happened. Do I wish I had never taken my eyes off of my baby, YES! Is that feasible, no! Babies move so quickly and I have three other children vying for my attention. We are new to living in a cold climate and we do not personally use a fireplace and therefore didn’t think to look for one.

    I am torn between personal responsibility and manufacturer responsibility. I have seen the gas fireplaces that have the mesh screen attached to the fireplace that provides a barrier from the searing glass. You don’t know it is there unless you get up close to it or touch it. Isn’t this something that could easily come standard. It wouldn’t cost $30,000, either. If anything I think more information is needed to remind people of the dangers. Every time we are in the burn clinic there is another child that is there with burns from the glass of a fireplace. These aren’t small burns. These are deep third degree burns that require skin grafts, which my baby did end up getting. This is a horrible ordeal that I wish we, and all the other babies, were not going through!

  12. Travis

    Just out of curiosity, has anyone ever heard of personal responsibility? With that being summarily dismissed by everyone how about risk mitigation. Those who are engineers may recognize a class in the subject at one point. You can “mitigate” the risk of any hazard if you have the time and money to do so. So, if the fireplace manufacturers could guarantee that absolutely no burns would occur but the unit cost $30,000, would you buy one? What if you’re willing to purchase a $500 one knowing if you fell face first into it, you will get burned. Would you accept the risk? Another solution is to transfer the risk which isn’t really applicable here.

    So, are we advocating here that the fireplace manufacturer make the fireplace risk proof? If not, then what’s an acceptable level of “warning” or mitigation? See, everyone here has a different tolerance but do you expect them to make 50 different variations based on your requirements? The article mentions the lack of visibility of a “warning sticker”. What if the covered the entire front of the glass with this sticker? Is that sufficient for everyone? Probably for some but not for others since the sticker would presumably become very hot and cause burns. So, how about we all practice “risk avoidance” and not buy one and install it in our houses? Maybe then, we wouldn’t have to read hyperbolic articles about something that was simply an accident.

  13. DP

    Manufactures do not get to write their own safety rules, as your introduction clearly states. One must read down towards the end of your article to find out that there really are standards (did you even try and research the current standards?), and that “CPSC has no plans to address” changing the current standard. As the parent of a toddler, I would be more inclined to take this article as a call to action, IF I felt it was written with less bias againest companies following the current guidelines. I believe that most fireplace companies offer screens as an option already, for anyone that feels they might wish to have that option, but you seem to think we all must have someone do our thinking for us? Can the fireplace industry do better? Of course they can. And if consumers choose fireplaces with added safety features then the market place will dictate what is made and sold.

  14. Fred Stephens

    Personal responsibility is a good argument to justify designing and manufacturing a large glass front appliance that contains intriguing flickering lights, often sits at floor level in the middle of a living room, and happens to get as hot as 500 degrees after 30 minutes of operation. Why then make dryers, ovens, and furnaces safe? The problem is, unlike a wood burning fireplace, people see the glass front and wrongly believe it is a safety barrier that will prevent, instead of cause horrible 3rd degree contact burns, much like the glass front of an oven. After all, a gas fireplace is a large appliance and this is the United States.

    I guess the manufacturers of these appliance sleep better because they can blame the parents for the children’s injuries since it is really their fault.

  15. Gary Wilkening

    This is a serious issue. Glass burns from gas fireplaces are on the rise. Seven years ago my company designed an inexpensive screen attachment for existing gas fireplace fronts. By providing a screen barrier with an air gap between it and the glass, the contact temperature is reduced by approximately 50%. For more info contact Wilkening Fireplace Company at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

  16. JimmyZ

    C’mon folks, there has to be some personal responsibility here. Suppose there had been no glass, and the toddler had fallen into the fire instead. The fact that fire, and anything exposed directly to it (like a fireplace glass!) is hot, should not require a warning.

    And for the poster above, do you mean to say that your 10 month old managed to crawl out of your sight in someone else’s home where you weren’t intimately familiar with any hazards?

    Seriously, how can you NOT know that a piece of glass that has been right next to an open flame is hot???

  17. Mike Dorsey

    In my last comment I forgot to mention the name of our company, Diamond W Products, http://www.diamond-w.com. We manufacture gas fireplace safety screens.

  18. Danielle

    Thank you for sharing the dangers with others. Unfortunately we learned this the hard way. We were visiting someone’s home on New Years Eve and I had no idea there was a fire place on. Within 5 minutes, our daughter (10 months old) burned her hand on the glass of a gas fireplace. It was the most horrifying thing I have been through with my children. She received severe second and third degree burns. She is healing well and hopefully may not need a skin graft but we won’t know that for a few more days. In the burn unit there were several more babies with the same injuries.

    I do not understand how something so dangerous can be sold without some sort of protection. Why can’t all manufacturers add the mesh screens to the fireplace. We have talked with so many people that have no idea the glass gets so hot. People just assume the glass is some sort of barrier from the heat. I would love to see some change to these regulations so no other baby has to suffer like mine has!

  19. Mike Dorsey

    Good story. Our company has been making safety screens for gas fireplaces for the last 5 years and we completely agree that these fireplaces are hazerdous. Consumers can buy good safety screens for their existing gas fireplaces, just check out our website.

  20. Ellen Liberman

    Good story, Myron!

Leave a comment