Fireplace industry resists regulation over child burns
Toddlers suffer injuries from glass that reaches 400 degrees
Soon after his family checked in at a mountain resort in Breckenridge, Colo., 1-year-old Stanton Smith quietly drew close to the gas fireplace in their suite.
Suddenly, Stanton burst into agonized screams, the victim of second- and third-degree burns. The child had simply touched the glass front of the fireplace, and left behind a patch of melted skin. Horrified and angry, his parents sued the fireplace manufacturer and the resort.
As FairWarning has reported, more than 2,000 children ages 5 and younger have suffered burns from fireplace glass since 1999, according to a federal estimate. Some burn specialists think the actual toll is higher.
The glass commonly reaches temperatures of 400 degrees, as hot as an oven on broil, and is usually placed at a perfect height for curious toddlers to touch or fall into. These encounters can easily result in skin graft surgery and painful recovery, with medical costs in the six figures. One safety expert called it an "insidious and unappreciated hazard."
Consumer groups and anguished parents are urging the Consumer Product Safety Commission to impose federal safety regulations. But the fireplace industry, which up to now has policed itself, is resisting. To head off federal regulation and more lawsuits from families of burned kids, manufacturers are working on a revision to their current voluntary standard that will be taken up by an industry technical panel on Dec. 13.
The proposal would not change provisions allowing the glass to reach a peak temperature of 500 degrees, or of 1,328 degrees, depending which of two types of glass is used. Rather, it would call for manufacturers to offer for sale an optional safety screen or other barrier designed to fit each fireplace.
Leslie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Assn., an industry trade group, said the screens to be provided under the revised standard would be significantly more protective than those on the market now. She said the industry also aims to step up consumer education on the need for a protective screen if small children are around.
But Christopher Gannon, whose daughter in March suffered severe palm burns from the glass of a hotel fireplace, said there is no assurance that an optional screen "would be installed in the hotel or in a home where a child may be visiting."
He is among those calling on the commission to impose federal regulations. If the companies "were able to develop a solution that would protect children," he asked, "why wouldn't they have done it already?"
Citing the "extreme risk of injury," the American Burn Association, representing burn surgeons, nurses and therapists, last week became the latest to call for adoption of a mandatory safety standard. It joins such groups as Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America.
"We want there to be a requirement that there would be a barrier or screen that would prevent contact with the glass," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the consumer federation. "We want the barrier to be included, and not to be an accessory."
Warnings provided with fireplaces haven't prevented serious burns, in part, because the parents of victims may never see them. Often, the buyer of the fireplace is a building contractor or commercial establishment, while the end user is a renter or second owner of the home, or a hotel guest.
And since gas fireplaces in the past were mainly ornamental, many consumers aren't aware of the danger of modern hearths. Installed by the millions in recent years, they are designed to serve as heating appliances. Fireplace makers generally have failed to actively warn of the dangers or push the use of safety screens, fearing they would turn off potential buyers.
However, two leading manufacturers provide screens at no extra cost. For safety reasons, Hearth & Home Technologies of Lakeville, Minn., for several years has included an attached mesh screen with all of its gas fireplaces. Another top manufacturer, Lennox Hearth Products of Nashville, Tenn., recently began offering a free attachable screen with each fireplace as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit.
Officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission are reviewing public comments on two petitions requesting federal safety regulations. According to spokesman Scott Wolfson, the commission staff is expected to make a recommendation early next year on whether the agency should regulate fireplaces or accept industry revisions to the voluntary standard.
The petitions each propose a different fix. One submitted by William S. Lerner, a New York inventor, would require a high temperature warning light, such as one he has developed. It would be visible from the time the fireplace is lit until the glass cools enough to touch safely.
The other, from Carol Pollack-Nelson–a former commission staff member and expert witness in a lawsuit against a fireplace maker—asks the commission to require that all new fireplaces include attached safety screens.
As he described in a letter to the commission, Gannon, his wife and daughter, Julianne, were staying in a hotel in Pennsylvania last March when the 18-month old toddler, attracted by the flames of the gas fireplace, placed her hands on the glass enclosure.
"We had never had a gas fireplace at home,'' Gannon wrote, and thought it "was for decorative purposes."
The episode "was absolutely the most horrible time of our lives," he recalled.
However, "the doctors at the burn unit weren't shocked at all," Gannon said in an interview. "They all nodded like they'd seen this before."
Stanton Smith was burned during what his family had hoped would be a relaxing vacation. His father, Kim, a mechanical engineer, had just been treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of cancer, and was under orders to find a stress-free place to aid his recovery. That's what led the family from their home in Katy, Texas, to the Mountain Thunder Lodge in Breckenridge in June, 2009. Kim Smith passed away earlier this week at the age of 56.
Stanton was treated at a burn center near Denver, and later had skin from his thigh grafted onto his right hand at Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas. Now three and a half, Stanton has decent range of motion in his hands, but "the scars are terrible," Kim Smith said in an interview last month. He added that he feared his son would be teased by other kids as he gets older.
The Smith lawsuit, filed this June in federal court in Denver, seeks damages from several fireplace companies along with operators of the resort. They knew "these fireplaces would be installed at heights for which the decorative glass front was perfectly suited to contact by infants and small children," the lawsuit states, yet "took no steps to guard against direct contact with the super-heated glass or to meaningfully warn about the extreme…burn potential."
However, several fireplace businesses named as defendants are defunct, court papers show. The only active firm, Monessen Hearth Systems Co. of Paris, Ky., says it is not liable because the fireplace at issue was built and sold before Monessen acquired assets of the defunct companies. A Monessen lawyer declined comment.
The suit also names the lodge operator, Vail Resorts. A spokeswoman said the company wouldn't comment on pending litigation.
"Nobody would dream that this thing would be so hot," Smith said.
"All they had to do was put a little guard on the front of that thing, and it never would have happened."
FairWarning is a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues.
Myron Levin is editor of FairWarning.