U.S. Sen. Al Franken has called for federal action to reduce the risk of serious burns to toddlers from the scorching glass fronts of gas fireplaces, which are allowed to reach temperatures of up to 500 degrees under a voluntary industry standard.

In a letter to Inez Tenenbaum, chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Minnesota Democrat cited a federal estimate of 2,000 burn injuries to children five and under in a recent 10-year period. A recent victim, he said, was the 10-month-old daughter of a constituent who sustained third-degree burns from placing her palms on the glass of a fireplace at a hotel where they were staying.

“I’m concerned that regulators haven’t taken the necessary steps to help prevent these kinds of injuries,” Franken wrote.

The letter quoted at length from a January report by FairWarning that was published by 10 other news organizations, including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Kansas City Star and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. (Franken’s letter attributed the report to Southern California Public Radio, one of the outlets that carried the FairWarning story.)

The article told how every year in cold weather months, toddlers are burned on the unprotected glass enclosures, which many parents don’t realize get dangerously hot.  For example, the burn program at The Children’s Hospital in Aurora, Colo., treated 82 hand burn cases from glass fireplace doors from 2005-2008. Five of the patients required skin grafting, according to a report by staff members there.

The voluntary industry standard, developed by a committee dominated by fireplace makers, installers and gas utilities, does not provide for a protective screen or any other barrier against touching the glass. It does require written warnings, but typically they appear in owner’s manuals that few consumers read and many never see. That’s because the manual goes to the buyer of the fireplace—in many cases, a building contractor or original homeowner and not a second owner or tenant.

“As you know, the gas fireplace industry is largely self-regulated ,” Franken said in his letter, which was dated March 16. “When these kinds of voluntary standards fail to achieve even the most basic of protections, it is up to state and federal regulators to act.”

“I respectfully ask the CPSC to reconsider deferring to voluntary standards in the case of glass-enclosed gas fireplaces.”

A commission spokesman said the agency still is working on a response to the Franken letter. The commission also has scheduled an April 14 public meeting between members of its technical staff and interested parties, including fireplace manufacturers and consumer advocates.

Meanwhile, an industry working group is examining possible changes to the voluntary standard. “They are taking the matter very seriously,” said Leslie Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Assn. trade group.

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