FairWarining Reports

Industry Seeks to Stave Off Regulation Over Toddler Burns

Stanton Smith suffered severe hand burns from the unprotected glass of a gas fireplace.

Soon after his family checked in at a mountain resort in Breckenridge, Colo., one-year-old Stanton Smith quietly drew close to the gas fireplace in their suite.

Suddenly, Stanton burst into agonized screams, the victim of second- and third-degree burns. The child had simply touched the glass front of the fireplace, and left behind a patch of melted skin. Horrified and angry, his parents sued the fireplace manufacturer and the resort.

As FairWarning has reported, more than 2,000 children ages five and under have suffered burns from fireplace glass since 1999, according to a federal estimate. Some burn specialists think the actual toll is higher.

The glass commonly reaches temperatures of 400 degrees, as hot as an oven on broil, and is usually placed at a perfect height for curious toddlers to touch or fall into. These encounters can easily result in skin graft surgery and painful recovery, with medical costs in the six figures. One safety expert called it an “insidious and unappreciated hazard.”

Consumer groups and anguished parents are urging the Consumer Product Safety Commission to impose federal safety regulations. But the fireplace industry, which up to now has policed itself, is resisting. To head off federal regulation and more lawsuits from families of burned kids, manufacturers are working on a revision to their current voluntary standard that will be taken up by an industry technical panel on Dec. 13.

The proposal would not change provisions allowing the glass to reach a peak temperature of 500 degrees, or of 1,328 degrees, depending which of two types of glass is used. Rather, it would call for manufacturers to offer for sale an optional safety screen or other barrier designed to fit each fireplace.

Leslie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Assn., an industry trade group, said the screens to be provided under the revised standard would be significantly more protective than those on the market now. She said the industry also aims to step up consumer education on the need for a protective screen if small children are around.

But Christopher Gannon, whose daughter in March suffered severe palm burns from the glass of a hotel fireplace, said there is no assurance that an optional screen “would be installed in the hotel or in a home where a child may be visiting.”

He is among those calling on the commission to impose federal regulations. If the companies “were able to develop a solution that would protect children,” he asked, “why wouldn’t they have done it already?”

Citing the “extreme risk of injury,” the American Burn Assn., representing burn surgeons, nurses and therapists, last week became the latest to call for adoption of a mandatory safety standard. It joins such groups as Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America.

Stanton Smith had skin grafts on his right hand after suffering third-degree burns.

“We want there to be a requirement that there would be a barrier or screen that would prevent contact with the glass,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the consumer federation. “We want the barrier to be included, and not to be an accessory.”

Warnings provided with fireplaces haven’t prevented serious burns, in part, because the parents of victims may never see them. Often, the buyer of the fireplace is a building contractor or commercial establishment, while the end user is a renter or second owner of the home, or a hotel guest.

And since gas fireplaces in the past were mainly ornamental, many consumers aren’t aware of the danger of modern hearths. Installed by the millions in recent years, they are designed to serve as heating appliances. Fireplace makers generally have failed to actively warn of the dangers or push the use of safety screens, fearing they would turn off potential buyers.

However, two leading manufacturers provide screens at no extra cost. For safety reasons, Hearth & Home Technologies of Lakeville, Minn., for several years has included an attached mesh screen with all of its gas fireplaces. Another top manufacturer, Lennox Hearth Products of Nashville, Tenn., recently began offering a free attachable screen with each fireplace as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit.

Officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission are reviewing public comments on two petitions requesting federal safety regulations. According to spokesman Scott Wolfson, the commission staff is expected to make a recommendation early next year on whether the agency should regulate fireplaces or accept industry revisions to the voluntary standard.

The petitions each propose a different fix. One submitted by William S. Lerner, a New York inventor, would require a high temperature warning light, such as one he has developed. It would be visible from the time the fireplace is lit until the glass cools enough to touch safely.

The other, from Carol Pollack-Nelson–a former commission staff member and expert witness in a lawsuit against a fireplace maker—asks the commission to require that all new fireplaces include attached safety screens.

As he described in a letter to the commission, Gannon, his wife and daughter, Julianne, were staying in a hotel in Pennsylvania last March when the 18-month old toddler, attracted by the flames of the gas fireplace, placed her hands on the glass enclosure.

“We had never had a gas fireplace at home,’’ Gannon wrote, and thought it “was for decorative purposes.”

The episode “was absolutely the most horrible time of our lives,” he recalled.

However, “the doctors at the burn unit weren’t shocked at all,” Gannon said in an interview. “They all nodded like they’d seen this before.”

Stanton Smith was burned during what his family had hoped would be a relaxing vacation. His father, Kim, a mechanical engineer, had just been treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of cancer, and was under orders to find a stress-free place to aid his recovery. That’s what led the family from their home in Katy, Texas, to the Mountain Thunder Lodge in Breckenridge in June, 2009. Kim Smith passed away earlier this week at the age of 56.

Stanton was treated at a burn center near Denver, and later had skin from his thigh grafted onto his right hand at Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas. Now three and a half, Stanton has decent range of motion in his hands, but “the scars are terrible,” Kim Smith said in an interview last month. He added that he feared his son would be teased by other kids as he gets older.

The Smith lawsuit, filed this June in federal court in Denver, seeks damages from several fireplace companies along with operators of the resort. They knew “these fireplaces would be installed at heights for which the decorative glass front was perfectly suited to contact by infants and small children,” the lawsuit states, yet “took no steps to guard against direct contact with the super-heated glass or to meaningfully warn about the extreme…burn potential.”

However, several fireplace businesses named as defendants are defunct, court papers show. The only active firm, Monessen Hearth Systems Co. of Paris, Ky., says it is not liable because the fireplace at issue was built and sold before Monessen acquired assets of the defunct companies. A Monessen lawyer declined comment.

The suit also names the lodge operator, Vail Resorts. A spokeswoman said the company wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.

“Nobody would dream that this thing would be so hot,” Smith said.

“All they had to do was put a little guard on the front of that thing, and it never would have happened.”

Related Posts:

Burn Cases Turn Up Heat on Fireplace Makers
Toddler Burns from Fireplaces Draw Heat from Senator Franken

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Myron Levin - FairWarning

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Myron Levin is editor of FairWarning.

6 comments to “Industry Seeks to Stave Off Regulation Over Toddler Burns”

  1. Beckley Mason

    Note sure parenting boundaries are the answer for the behavior of toddlers just learning to explore the world by walking.

    I can see the point of not having a guard as the glass aesthetic is the whole point of having it in the first place, but it just seems like common sense to not have an exposed really, really hot thing at toddler level. It’s like having a bunch of outward facing knives a foot off the ground on the wall. No one would think that was a good idea either, even if it did look really swanky.

  2. Stacy Pollack

    On December 2, 2008, my 14-month-old son Jaden walked up to the glass-fronted gas fireplace in my grandfather’s brand-new home and pressed both of his hands against it. I stood there with my cousin and we watched as Jaden stared in wonder at the tiny flame inside. Suddenly he started to whimper. Then he screamed. I lunged forward, touched my finger to the burning glass, and pulled his hands away. His palms and fingertips were covered by loose, sagging skin. Within minutes they were bulging with fluid.

    Our ride to the hospital was excruciating, with Jaden so upset he was gasping for air. Immediately upon arrival, he was given a shot of morphine. The staff were wonderful about managing the pain, but we were informed that he would need to be treated at a burn center. I can assure you that as a parent, it is absolutely terrifying to hear that Children’s Hospital Boston is not equipped to deal with the severity of your baby’s injuries.

    We had our first appointment at Shriners Hospital for Children the next morning. It was to become our second home in the coming months. We learned that a third degree burn means the nerve tissue is damaged and/or exposed. There was still a transparent layer of skin covering the nerve tissues in Jaden’s hands, so his burns were classified as “worst-case second degree.” We took that as a sign of hope.

    We were told that Jaden could be seen on an outpatient basis, but he would need to come every day for dressing changes. These would be extraordinarily painful, especially in the beginning. In addition to the 2-4 doctors and nurses who would be working on him, I would need to bring another adult so one of us could hold him and the other could stand in front of him to distract him.

    There was no distracting Jaden during these procedures. Each time the bandages came off, he would scream in agony. The staff would massage his raw skin in an attempt to speed up regeneration, and stretch back his fingers to avoid contractures. He wore custom splints covered by socks, making it impossible for him to feed himself or hold a sippy cup. My parents flew back from their home in Florida so my husband could continue to work. Each day we waited to hear good news, but we were told that Jaden was a “slow healer.” We met with a surgeon to discuss the very real possibility of grafts. We were given a deadline; if they didn’t see progress soon, surgery would be scheduled. When Jaden spiked a fever of 104.7 and would not respond to medication, we felt as if we had hit rock bottom.

    Then suddenly a miracle happened. The fever subsided and he started to heal. He would not require surgery. Eventually we were able to do the dressing changes at home. Our daily visits became weekly, then monthly. Finally we were given the all-clear.

    Jaden now has full use of his hands. No numbness. No heightened sensitivity. No scarring. And unlike those of us who watched him go through it, no memory of the horrific trauma.

    From what I’ve heard, Jaden is the exception.

    Yesterday I was contacted by Shriners to inquire whether I’d be willing to tell my story in an attempt to prevent this from happening to other families. I yelled “YES! YES!” before the question was asked.

    I had learned within the first three minutes of our first visit to Shriners that these burns from glass-fronted gas fireplaces are far from uncommon. And while some happen because children are left unattended, many others happen with a parent standing right there. I was that parent.

    This was my first experience with one of these units. I stood less than five feet away from it. It didn’t throw heat. It didn’t crackle. It didn’t even have doors; it was completely enclosed in solid glass and marble. The flame was pretty, but it didn’t look like the ones in the wood-burning fireplaces I grew up with. Or the one I have in my own home, which hadn’t been lit since my children were born, because God forbid…

    I’ve read statements made by the manufacturers and distributors of the fireplace industry, asserting that parents and homeowners should simply use “common sense.” Fireplaces get hot. Everyone knows that. I read their callous remarks about how my generation doesn’t take responsibility for teaching our children about the dangers of fire. I read article after article, and I was numb. Because when you are a parent and your child gets injured to the extent Jaden did, there is very little anyone can say or do to make it better. There’s also not much they can say… although it seems the folks from this particular industry gave it their best shot… to make it worse.

    We parents do that all on our own.

    I am a parent who stood next to her baby while the skin on his hands MELTED. I was not aware that pulling away from something that’s causing you excruciating pain is not a reflex; it’s a learned behavior that a typical 14-month-old has not even begun to master.

    Everyone knows these fireplaces get hot?

    I DIDN’T.

    Should I have known?

    ABSOLUTELY.

    But it’s the furthest thing from common sense. Common sense would dictate that a product like this couldn’t achieve the lowest standard of safety testing. In fact, I was convinced that my grandfather’s unit was defective; that’s how counterintuitive its very existence seemed to me at the time. That’s how counterintuitive it seems to me now, exactly three years later. I am of the generation where tiny toys can be recalled because children swallow them and choke to death. But what I know now is that the fireplace industry regulates itself. What a privilege. What a responsibility. One member suggested that once a child places his hands on hot glass, he’ll never do it again. Just like my Jaden. Brilliant.

    If the industry wants to talk common sense, how about some sort of indication that the glass-fronted gas fireplace we’re admiring is vastly different from the strictly decorative versions that look EXACTLY the same? Everyone who heard about Jaden in the days, weeks and months after his accident was just as shocked as we were about the inherent danger. Many of them have these units in their homes.

    All of them have common sense.

    I am reaching out to you now because my husband and I are forever indebted to Shriners. Thanks to them, our son might be the catcher on his little league team, or a piano player, or maybe he’ll grow up to be a surgeon in a burn unit, inspiring kids like him. In the meantime, we are just eternally grateful that he can hold our hands. We would do anything Shriners asked of us. It took three years, but finally we’ve been asked. They’ve enlisted our help to prevent other families from having to endure what we have, or far worse.

    What a privilege. What a responsibility.

    We will do whatever it takes to be heard, and we will not stop until change has happened. If we don’t do something, then Jaden’s burns– and those of every child whose life has been permanently or temporarily altered by a single touch to these glass-fronted gas fireplaces– were in vain. We owe it to them. But more importantly, we owe it to that child who will visit a hotel or restaurant or friend’s house tomorrow and walk toward that pretty glass window, palms outstretched.

  3. Frits Goossen

    I am totally amazed that the courts thinking is in the direction of somebody is quilty except the caretakers (parents) when will they look at who was looking after the todler and lay “charges of neglect” where it belongs I was brought up in a home with many hot surfaces around but never got burned by any they don’t jump out at you, “YOU” do have to touch them in order to get BURNED.

  4. Alen Urbanski

    The stats for child burns are a result, in part, of a change in parenting spurned by a changing society that walks through life without boundaries ( read “Boundaries” by Dr. Townsend). North America was developed by homesteaders heating with wood and coal in totally unprotected and hot burning stoves. They believed in teaching their children what is right and wrong, setting boundaries and ensuring that the children obeyed them, so there were little if not any burns. I run a retail fireplace and stove store and see people in here all the time with children that are “out of control” and have no regard for anything the parents say. It’s not the child that is different, it’s how we raise them. I raised 3 energetic boys around hot fireplaces and stoves in our home. As I did, I recommend to customers, rather than build elaborate defenses around the fireplace or stove, take the child over to it, set them on your knee and holding their wrist position their hand in front of the glass, close enough than in a short time it will become uncomfortable, they will try and pull it away as soon as it starts to get even a bit uncomfortable, hold it a second longer then verbally reinforce that this item is hot and will hurt them. The verbal is usually unnecessary as a strong message has already been sent to their subconscious by their hand. Anyone that says that they didn’t think a flame would produce heat is lying. Be it in a BBQ or candles or whatever, people know that where there’s flame there’s heat. The Smith’s obviously turned on the fireplace and were so caught up in the splendor of their vacation property that “they failed” to instruct their toddler. I would ask why the fireplace was on if they weren’t sitting in front of it. Maybe they were wanting to “heat up” the place as they settled in – what happened to ” I never dreamed these things would get that hot”. Sorry, the fault in this area and so many other areas of our lives is that we’ve lost sight of instructing and raising our our children. Maybe the daycare will do it, or maybe the school will do it – if you make the baby you need to truly care for it and that means instilling at a very young age (1-6 months) that the parent knows best and needs to be listened to. I recently witnessed a child run out between parked cars in a shopping mall parking lot. The parent was screaming at the child to stop but the child had no respect to listen and was struck by a car, luckily only slightly. Should we stop having cars etc or should we “teach” out children to listen and obey. I find it interesting when a second generation customer is asking for a “child screen” which we do have available, and I ask them if their parents had a child screen to protect them when they were growing up. The answer is ALWAYS no! – and none of them have been burnt or scarred!! Our sociologists have lead us astray. I think Dr. Spock’s own son turned out poorly and at the end of his life I have heard that Dr. Spock denounced all that he had taught and said it didn’t work. We know that – look at the last 2 generations!!

  5. Karen Duke

    I think it’s absolutely horrible that so many children have been burned by gas fireplaces. However, as a fireplace retailer, I talk with many, many people every day about fireplaces and the features they want, and there will be a huge push-back from consumers who are forced to have a screen on their fireplace that obscures the view of the fire.

    As a mother, a grandmother and a responsible salesperson, I always warn of the extreme burn danger with wood gas fireplaces. I’ve never had a child burned in my store or in my home because I teach children what HOT means, and put up a screen at home if children are visiting. I think a freestanding (removable) screen offers much greater protection against burns than an attached one, and this option allows those that don’t need the screen to enjoy the ambience of an unobstructed fire view. For goodness sakes, where has common sense gone? Man has been heating with fire since the beginning of time. Do we really need the government to protect us against every aspect of danger in our lives? And who wants some indicator light on prominently displayed on our fireplace glass to protect an 18 month old baby who doesn’t comprehend what that light means?

  6. William S. Lerner

    In response to the “illuminated visual indicator”, and it’s usefulness in preventing burn injuries by providing information, it must be stated that the indicator is strictly for the adult and child, who clearly understands visual warnings, and can react appropriately. Young toddlers must always be supervised, and the operator of the unit, must in no uncertain terms be aware of the status of the unit. With information readily, and acutely available, parents and those unaware of the dangers will be alerted. The Lawsuit mentioned in this article, and the transcript, states the parents had no idea the glass could get that hot. If there was a warning, that was clear, and meant for the hotel’s occupants, this burn injury could have been prevented. Screens/ guards/ barriers can get hot enough to cause serious burn injuries. Please refer to the link to the class action lawsuit above. They are also are removed, not bought, are sub-standard in their protection, and in another lawsuit referenced by Fairwarning.org, installed improperly, not permanently affixed, etc. there is no guarantee of safety. An illuminate visual indicator, much like the one on a standard household iron, could help mitigate burns injuries. These indicators, have in my opinion, prevented many serious burn injuries and fires, because their users understood the acute danger. These units pose a greater danger during cool down, which can take up to 45 minutes, when no visual, auditory, olfactory or other clues are present. A permanent, non-removable screen/guard/barrier that will withstand multiple impact forces, and have no hardware that will exceed 172 Fahrenheit, is also an appropriate solution to the problem. A supplemental warning system, alerting of the danger every time, that is tamper proof where a guard/screen/grate may be unavailable, or possible due to design of the unit or it’s placement can be added level of safety, which adds a multl-focal solution to the problem.

    The “illuminated visual indicator,” has been specifically designed to be as unattractive to a small child as possible, and aimed at the adult’s line of sight. A retrofit would also address the problems, and installation issues that units as old twenty years face.

    As of December 6th 2011, concerns have been expressed that an illuminated visual indicator, will attract, or not attract a small child to it. The American Academy of Pediatrics, The Consumer Products Safety Commission, The Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention, nor Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) has any study or data confirming, or refuting the visual indicator and it’s concerns.

    William S. Lerner

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