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So Kids Don't Get Burned

June 12, 1997|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only three days ago, it happened again.

As far as investigators can tell, after a Buena Park woman refueled a lawn mower in the backyard, she put the gas can in the garage to keep it away from her toddlers.

She intended to cap the can and put it away later but forgot, investigators say. The can spent the night with an open spout 12 feet from a water heater, investigators say.

The next day her toddlers went into the garage to play. The open door probably blew the ground-hugging gasoline fumes toward the water-heater burner, investigators say, and the fumes then did what gasoline is designed to do--explode. Now the woman's 2- and 3-year-olds have second- and third-degree burns over their feet and legs.

Hospital burn wards see lots of child burns. In Anaheim alone since 1995, half of all burn injuries have been to children. It's not just because adults are sometimes careless, firefighters say. It's also because ordinary life has become so complicated.

Throwing dirt on a fire puts it out, right? So at the beach, a well-meaning adult went one better and buried the barbecue coals in the sand. Next morning when a toddler walked over the spot, she got deep second- and third-degree burns on her feet and hands that required skin grafts.

The reason? Barbecue briquettes must be doused to extinguish them, say firefighters. Bury them and they keep burning, creating an oven that generates intense heat for many hours, even days, afterward. Bury them on a beach and you have created a well-concealed booby trap.

A mother bottle-feeding her infant heated the milk in the microwave oven, then did what she was supposed to do; she felt its temperature. Just right. But when she gave it to her baby, he suffered severe burns in his mouth and throat.

The reason? Microwave ovens do not heat evenly. A baby bottle heated this way can be pleasantly warm at the walls of the bottle but incredibly hot in the center.

The child can be burned when the hot center reaches the nipple, or the superheated milk can create high pressure inside the bottle, blowing off the nipple and spraying hot milk on the baby's face.

Children themselves are burn hazards. Their natural curiosities lead them into danger that their parents often do not foresee.

One mother went into the kitchen to cook, but as she turned with a pan of hot soup in her hands, she fell over her child, who had quietly maneuvered behind her in his new walker to see what Mom was doing. The child suffered severe burns.

"It's my position that all burns are preventable," says Bruce M. Achauer, a plastic surgeon and director of UC Irvine's Burn Center.

"Obviously no one wants their child to be burned; it's just a lack of knowledge and awareness. It just takes a second; children can move so quickly.

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Burn prevention campaigns have reduced the number of burn injuries by more than 40% over the last decade, but there still were 1.55 million in the United States and Canada last year, 6,000 of them leading to death. Young children get more than their share--more than 35% of all burn injuries and deaths nationwide.

In Anaheim, from 1993 through 1995, 83 fires were started by children playing with matches or cigarette lighters. One was set by an 11-month-old girl who had found a lighter in her parents' car. The fire killed her and her 5-year-old brother.

Last year, the city's Fire Department obtained a grant for in-school fire safety programs in 44 local elementary schools from kindergarten through third grade. Titled "Learn Not to Burn," the program teaches children about the dangers of such adult items as gasoline, barbecues, cigarette lighters and matches.

But most preschoolers are not burned in playing-with-matches fires.

For them, the most common burns are from hot foods and liquids in the kitchen and at the dining table. They are unaware of the consequences of tugging on a tablecloth or grabbing a pot handle.

The bathroom is also high on their burn-danger list. Hot-water scalds are common when small children are left briefly in the tub while water is running. The child or a sibling may turn the hot- or cold-water valve, sending the water temperature soaring.

Most often the parent or baby sitter has gone to answer the telephone, Achauer says. A telephone answering machine can wind up being an important anti-burn device, he says.

So can a kitchen thermometer. Use it to check the temperature of your household hot water.

"We've been trying for years to convince people to set their water heaters no higher than 120 degrees," Achauer says. "Even 100 degrees is plenty hot enough for anything you're going to do. If your hot water is 140 or 145 degrees, however, it will burn a child in one second."

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Their thinner skins make young children slightly more prone to burns, but they react no differently than do adults.

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