In September 2015, 11-month-old Hattie crawled over to a gas fireplace in her family’s home and touched its front glass panel with the palms of both her hands. It was an activity typical of a curious toddler beginning to explore her world. The horrific outcome was totally unforeseeable to Hattie’s parents.
Although the fireplace had been turned on for only 10 minutes, and her parents were only feet away, Hattie sustained deep burns to her hands that were so severe she required multiple surgeries to replace her own skin tissue with artificial tissue and a skin graft. Hattie’s surgeries were followed by a year of intensive physical therapy and the need to wear compression gloves. She will require additional surgeries and medical treatment as she grows.
Hattie’s parents had no idea ― nor should they have been expected to know ― that the glass-front of their gas fireplace could reach temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, capable of causing third-degree burns in less than one second of contact.
Gas fireplaces ― estimated to be installed in more than 10 million U.S. homes, resorts and other public places ― have been severely injuring children for decades without much public attention.
From 1999 to 2009, there were 1,754 pediatric contact burns associated with gas fireplaces, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. An article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2015 states that 402 children were seen in burn centers for injuries in the previous five years after coming in contact with the fireplaces’ scorching-hot glass panels. These injuries led to an estimated 17,000 medical visits, 360 emergency department visits and 33 hospital admissions per year. Burns to the palms of the hands ― like those sustained by Hattie ― accounted for 95 percent of the injuries. Up to 11 percent of these burns were severe enough to require surgery.
Children under age three are most at risk due to their undeveloped reflexes and exploratory nature, according to one researcher.
Other reasons cited as to why gas fireplaces are dangerous to young children include:
The front glass panels of gas fireplaces have a porous design that allows heat to pass through for heating purposes. Contrast that to the glass door of an oven, which is designed to hold heat in and which will not cause burns on contact.
Consumers are often unaware of the scorching-hot temperature of the glass due to inadequate warnings in either the installation materials and/or the product itself. These warnings are typically only present in the “Installation Manual,” which is often not seen by the average consumer, who does not install the fireplace. And, these warnings are often insufficient to describe the true nature of this serious risk.
Consequently, many parents incorrectly think the glass acts as a barrier that will protect their child from the fire, when the super-heated glass itself is a serious hazard. It is common for parents to unfairly blame themselves when tragic accidents happen.
On January 1, 2015, a mandatory industry standard developed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission went into effect requiring new gas fireplaces to come with mesh safety screens to fit over the glass. But the rule is not retroactive to the 10 million gas fireplaces already installed across the U.S., and children continue to sustain devastating injuries at an alarming rate.
Alan M. Feldman, a product liability attorney and co-founding partner at Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock Dodig LLP, recommends contacting a product liability attorney as soon as possible following a gas fireplace accident to ensure that evidence is preserved and that the child’s and family’s legal rights are protected.
Feldman said that even before the mandatory safety standard was adopted, product liability law has always required product manufacturers to ensure that their products are safe for their intended and expected use, and that the absence of a mandatory safety standard does not excuse the conduct of manufacturers of older gas fireplaces that were brought to market without safety screens.
Feldman continued, “The industry has been aware of the risk of burn injuries for years, but made a deliberate decision to design, produce and market these products without mesh screens and without adequate warnings. As a result, scores of children have paid the price for what could have been a completely avoidable injury.”
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