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 Association, 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, Minnesota-based company.
“If you touch the screen, you reduce the risk of a serious burn significantly,” Ginsberg 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, California 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 easily 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.”
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 2 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 heartwrenching.”
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, Ontario, 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 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 Protect 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.”
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.
FairWarning is a non-profit, online investigative publication focused on safety and health issues.