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You Better Watch Out : Amid the merriment of the holidays lurk possible dangers, electrical fires, broken ornaments, even poisoning. Kids will need extra attention to stay safe.

November 30, 1995|KATHLEEN O. RYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The holiday season has officially kicked off, and now we have homes to decorate, gifts to buy, relatives to visit, parties, pageants and concerts to attend. But during this festive fox-trot, many adults forget to put child safety on the holiday agenda, resulting in a flurry of emergency room visits between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Adults need to recognize that the key to keeping kids safe during the holidays is watchfulness. Youngsters take off for parts unknown during this time of year, and because they are out of our hair, we let them. And when parents finally catch up with the wee ones, what have they gotten into? Everything from Hanukkah lights to adult medications. Here, physicians and other child experts identify potential holiday hazards.

Decorations

Staggering figures demonstrate the danger of holiday decorations. According to the National Safety Council, electric decorations (excluding lights) caused 710 accidental deaths in 1994 in the United States, while non-electric decorations (such as swallowed ornaments) resulted in 3,928 deaths. In 1994, Christmas tree lights caused 3,262 accidental deaths.

The council says that every year, more than 400 residential fires are caused by Christmas trees. And too often children are also burned by unattended candles and Christmas lights.

"Small children find lights fascinating and each year we see babies who have burned their mouths from chewing on lights and cords," Letourneau says.

Because these items are brought out just once a year, they are especially tempting to young children, she says.

The National Safety Council suggests:

* using appropriate lights for indoors and outdoors.

* checking for broken sockets, loose wires or frayed cords.

* turning all lights and decorations off when you go to bed or leave your home.

* using only tinsel made of non-lead, non-flammable materials.

* avoiding decorations with sharp edges.

* keeping glass or breakable decorations out of reach; in homes with small children, glass ornaments should be on only the top third of your tree.

* remembering that bubbling Christmas lights contain the toxic fluid methylene chloride.

Gail Carruthers, an emergency medical physician specializing in pediatric emergency medicine at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, says that every year they see patients who have been hit by falling Christmas trees. But she adds that one of the most hazardous things to children are those small extra replacement bulbs that come in light sets.

"They are small and easily lost and we often find them up children's noses and in their ears," she says.

Poison

Some of the season's most beautiful holiday plants are also lethal. The berries or fruit from mistletoe, holly and Jerusalem cherry, as well as the leaves of amaryllis and wild poinsettia, are toxic enough even in small amounts to cause severe stomach problems. (Contrary to popular belief, commercially grown poinsettias are not poisonous.)

Equally inviting to children are alcoholic beverages. Accidental alcohol poisoning in children of any age is more prevalent at holiday time. Spiked holiday punches and eggnog should be kept out of reach. Also be wary of unfinished beverages left by party guests. Kids love to try them out, she says.

Poison control centers also see an increase in calls during the holidays because of children getting into adult medications. Most often it's prescriptions for high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, stomach ailments and other medications taken by older adults who aren't accustomed to having children around.

Toys

An annual report released last week by the United States Public Interest Research Group emphasizes the danger of toys, especially those that could cause choking or have projectiles. Sadly, figures from USPIRG show that 166,000 toy-related tragedies have played out in emergency rooms since January, 1994. Almost half involved children under age 5. Thirty-two of those children died, two-thirds by choking.

"We cannot emphasize enough that parents follow the age appropriate guidelines found on toys," Carruthers says. "I had a 3-year-old come in last Christmas with a plastic arrow stuck down her throat." The toy belonged to her older brother. The child lived.

She also warns parents to be aware of "button" batteries, not only because they are small, but also because they are corrosive if swallowed.

Parents should also be on the lookout when groups of children play together during holiday gatherings. Making sure that each child is playing with age-appropriate toys isn't easy, but parents should remove toys that pose obvious dangers and make sure there is supervision.

Since most of the broken bones, sprains, lacerations and scrapes seen on Christmas Day and the following week are the result of new sports equipment sans safety gear. Parents should insist that their children wear helmets and pads when skateboards, in-line skates and bicycles are given as gifts.

Visiting

For all the precautions we take in our own homes, it is the situation we can't control that becomes the most dangerous.

"Children will naturally be overstimulated by the crowd, the music or television, and of course other kids. There may be several sets of parents who all have different rules," says Susan Brauner-Tatum, a clinical social worker at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. "When visiting, parents need to step up their overall awareness."

Parents should insist that firearms be locked up; make sure someone is always watching the children; pass the word around to adults that lighters, coins and hard candy should not be within reach of a child, she says.

"When you're in someone else's home you may flex your rules, which is confusing for the kids," Tatum says. She suggests maintaining some sense of your routine for the sanity of children and adults alike.

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