Children under five years old sustained 65 percent of the injuries reported to the Commission; about 15 percent of the injured were between five and ten years old. Although most injuries involved lacerations, five percent were burns which frequently are among the most painful and long lasting injuries.
Injury reports in Commission files record cases in which children's nightclothes ignited when they stood too close to an open fireplace: a student's brushed denim jeans ignited while she was warming her legs near a fireplace with gas fireplace logs; adults and teenagers received severe burns when gasoline or other liquid fuel was mistakenly poured on fires in attempts to rekindle them.
A less obvious hazard resulted in injuries for at least two families who were overcome by carbon monoxide or other toxic fumes. One family tried to burn charcoal in the fireplace and the other had accidentally thrown some polystyrene foam packaging onto the fire.
The National Fire Protection Association estimates that there will be 14,000 house fires this year started by fireplaces. Major causes of these fires include overloading the fire, damage to the fireplace such as missing bricks, obstructed flues, ignition of nearby combustibles, and flying sparks.
Factory made built-in metal fireplaces that were overloaded with fuel or improperly installed were associated with a number of fires last year.
After 15 to 20 fires in the same county were traced to this style fireplace, one Fire Chief urged the use of "small romantic fires" rather than roaring blazes that could cause the fireplace to overheat over a period of time and ignite nearby materials.
For the safer enjoyment of the nation's 22 million fireplaces, the Commission recommends the following safety precautions:
1. Be sure the fireplace was constructed for actual use, not just for decoration. Inspect it to be sure that it has adequate protective linings and smoke ducts and that the chimney is clear and in good repair.
2. If installing a factory-made fireplace, insure that it is not near any combustible materials and has adequate flame and heat barriers.
3. Open the damper before lighting the fire and keep it open until the ashes are cool. This will avert the build-up of poisonous gases, especially while the family is sleeping.
4. Never use gasoline, charcoal lighter or other fuel to light or relight a fire because the vapors can explode. Never keep flammable fuels near a fire. Vapors can travel the length of a room and explode.
5. Do not use coal or charcoal in a fireplace because because of the danger of carbon monoxide build-up. It is not a good idea to burn trash or wrappings in fireplace fires because polystyrene foam and other coated materials can generate deadly fumes. Flying paper embers could also ignite the roof.
6. Do not treat artificial logs like real logs. Artificial logs are usually made of sawdust and wax and have special burning properties. Be sure to read the instructions on the logs and follow them carefully. Use just one log at a time and do not add another log until the fire is completely out. Never add an artificial log to a natural wood fire that is already burning. Wait at least two hours before adding an artificial log to a natural log fire because it could cause a flare-up.
Do not poke artificial logs because the flaming wax could stick to the poker and drop onto the floor or carpet. Poking a log could also cause a flare-up.
7. Home rolled newspaper logs should never be soaked in flammable fuels of any kind because of the severe danger of explosion. Soaking the newspaper in water either before rolling or during rolling removes the clay content and will provide a better burning log. Then, stack the logs on end and let them dry for two weeks in the basement. When lighting the newspaper logs, use kindling just as you would for a regular fire.
8. Do not overload the fireplace. Large fires can lead to overheating of wall or roof materials, particularly if the fireplace is constructed of metal.
9. Always use a screen around the fireplace to keep sparks from flying out and to protect children and adults from accidental clothing ignition.
10. Warn children about the danger of fire. Do not let them play with fire.
11. Keep flammable materials such as carpets, pillows, furniture or papers away from the fireplace area. Be sure the Christmas tree is not close enough to be ignited by a spark. Be especially careful of accidentally igniting holiday wrapping papers.
12. Make sure that the fire is out completely before retiring for the night or when leaving the house.
For a copy of the fireplace fact sheet or to report a product hazard or product related injury, write: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, D.C. 20207. In continental United States, call the toll free safety hotline: 800-638-2772.
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