Millions of consumers rely on space heaters to warm their homes and millions more use smaller heaters --some portable, some gas and some electric-- to take the chill out of cold mornings.
But many consumers fail to follow instructions or rules of safety, forgetting for a moment that death and serious injuries including burns and carbon monoxide poisoning strike thousands of Americans each year, warns the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that last year more than 5,000 persons sought hospital emergency room treatment for injuries associated with gas, kerosene, oil and electric space heaters. The Commission estimates that more than two-thirds of those injured required treatment for burns, and about half of all the injured victims were children under five years old.
At least 12 million American homes use fuel oil space heaters, and health officials estimate that up to 700,000 homes have heaters that emit excessive amounts of carbon monoxide --the odorless, tasteless and colorless gas that can kill a sleeping person in less than two hours.
Unvented heaters, which burn natural gas, liquified petroleum and other fuels pose the greatest threat of carbon monoxide poisoning because they require a constant supply of fresh air to operate safely and to avert the buildup of poisonous gases. Unvented heaters have been outlawed in some areas.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be as mild as drowsiness, headaches or nausea and frequently may be misdiagnosed. Exposure to carbon monoxide also can result in severe brain damage and could be especially injurious for elderly persons, those with heart problems, those with anemia, pregnant women and the very young.
Fire and burn problems are common to both fuel and electric space heaters.
CPSC in-depth investigations of emergency room cases reveal that children and adults inadvertently contacted the exposed flame or hot exterior surfaces of heaters and suffered severe burns as a result of clothing catching on fire or direct contact with hot surfaces.
The Commission makes the following recommendations to consumers who use space heaters:
- All equipment, particularly old or long idle equipment, should be inspected before use or annually by a professional service person. Installation and repair should be done by a qualified service person.
- Heaters should be located out of traffic and away from furniture, draperies and anything combustible.
- Children and adults should be alert to the hazard of high surface temperatures and should keep far enough away to avoid igniting clothing.
- Young children should be carefully supervised when they are in the same room with a space heater. With special regard to electric heaters:
- Use a heater with thermostat control and an automatic device that turns the heater off if it tips over frontwards or backwards.
- Warn children never to insert fingers or objects through the protective guard. They could be burned or receive electric shock.
- Avoid the use of extension cords for heaters, but if one is absolutely necessary, use heavy duty cords that are appropriate for the wattage of the heater. The ordinary home extension cord is probably inadequate for a heater, and even home wiring could be inadequate for some higher wattage heaters.
- Exert special caution when using an electric heater in the bathroom. The accumulation of moisture or direct contact with water and grounded plumbing fixtures could cause electric shocks. Never place the heater near the tub or sink where it could fall into the water.
Although gas and electric heaters are most common, some families may still have kerosene heaters. The National Fire Protection Association urges care when filling kerosene heaters because spillage could ignite.
NPPA warns that if cold oil is poured into the reservoir to the brim, it could later expand, overflow and flare up. Also, they warn never to make fuel substitutions or to convert heaters to another fuel without expert advice.
Coal and wood stoves: be sure they are professionally inspected and properly installed. Place a sheet of metal underneath to protect the floor surface from live coals and overheating.
Ovens: avoid use of open ovens for heating because they can emit carbon monoxide. Oven doors should never be left open for more than short periods of time.
Charcoal: never use unvented burning charcoal devices indoors because of the extreme hazard of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Consumers who suspect high carbon monoxide levels in their homes should contact their local gas company, fuel supplier or health department for testing.
About the U.S. CPSC
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risk of injury or death associated with the use of thousands of types of consumer products. Deaths, injuries, and property damage from consumer product-related incidents cost the nation more than $1 trillion annually. CPSC's work to ensure the safety of consumer products has contributed to a decline in the rate of injuries associated with consumer products over the past 50 years.
Federal law prohibits any person from selling products subject to a Commission ordered recall or a voluntary recall undertaken in consultation with the CPSC.
For lifesaving information: