Few things are more comforting on a cold winter’s night than a roaring fire. That is, unless you’re one of the hundreds of young children burned each year by contact with the unprotected glass on a fireplace. According to FairWarning.org., a public interest investigative news organization, a federal database compiled over 10 years indicated that 2,000 kids younger than 5 suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns.
After at least a dozen lawsuits and a call by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for federal standards, manufacturers have agreed to provide protective mesh screens as standard equipment with new gas fireplaces.
That’s the good news; the bad news is that although some companies are reconfiguring their products now, manufacturers have until 2015 to outfit them all with the screens. Oh, and the effort is voluntary. Protective screens are not required.
FairWarning says there are approximately 11 million gas fireplaces in the U.S. whose glass fronts can get dangerously hot. Many of their owners inherited them, and were not apprised of warning information when the appliances were new.
Most manufacturers have been reluctant to provide screens or issue prominent safety warnings because the former compromises the visual appeal of the fireplace and the latter might scare off customers.
The standards call for screens to be supplied with each unit, and installed by the homeowner or installer. They can be removed for cleaning. And some homeowners, of course, would choose not to install them in the first place.
According to the FairWarning story, one official of a Canadian fireplace maker was asked in a deposition why the company had not warned that touching the glass could result in 3rd degree burns. The response? That it would be “fear-mongering.” Another official testified that, with that warning, “As a parent, I don’t know if you’d buy such a fireplace.”
But if you’re afraid of something that could hurt your kid, is raising the issue really “fear-mongering” or just telling the truth?
Before providing specific screen regulations, the CPSC is waiting to see how well the industry responds to the need. The FairWarning story indicates that so far, reviews are mixed. One Alabama attorney who has litigated lawsuits against fireplace makers called it “very troubling’’ that it will take more than two years before full compliance with the provision of screens, and that there are no plans to offer retrofits to current owners.
A commission spokesman told FairWarning that it might be tough to meet a shorter deadline for issuing screens because making federal rules takes so much time and because, by law, the commission may not regulate when a voluntary standards groups is taking action similar to what the agency would take.
But Dan Dillard, executive director of the nonprofit Burn Prevention Network and chairman of the prevention committee of the American Burn Association, wants the CPSC to adopt mandatory, not voluntary standards. Dillard also believes the federal estimate of 200 child burn cases per year to be low, and his committee is preparing injury data to prove it.
FairWarning says the voluntary standards allow the glass to reach temperatures between 500 degrees and 1,328 degrees, depending on the type of glass used. Those limits are supposed to prevent the glass from failing, not prevent people from getting burned.
Some people say that the burn risk associated with a fireplace is so obvious that you’d have to simply be a bad parent not to keep your kid safe. Those are probably the people who aren’t aware that the glass in front of a fire can remain dangerously hot for at least a half-hour after the flame is turned off.
Two major manufacturers provide safety screens with new gas fireplaces—Hearth & Home Technologies and Lennox Hearth Products (which began offering a free attachable screen with each fireplace as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit).
To learn more about how to protect your children from burns and general fire safety tips, the Burn Prevention Network offers help here. And the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association has initiated a fireplace safety campaign for consumers.