Every day, 300 young children with burn injuries are taken to emergency rooms. They haven't even been near a flame. The children are victims of scalds.
Scald burns (caused by hot liquids, steam or foods) are the most common burn injury among children age 4 and younger. In 2003, U.S. hospitals treated an estimated 16,000 children under 5 for scalds, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And, mortality rates from scalds are highest for children under age 4.
While the injuries and the numbers are distressing, even more disturbing is the fact that many of these burns could have been prevented.
How Scalds Happen
Ninety-five percent of scalds occur in residences. Scald burns are typically related to ordinary activities - bathing, cooking and eating - and often happen to children because of a lapse in adult supervision or a lack of protective measures. Youngsters may not understand or even be aware of potential dangers of hot liquids (especially water) and foods; they simply trust adults to keep them safe.
In addition, young children have thinner skin that burns more quickly than adults'. People of all ages can be burned in 30 seconds by a flowing liquid that is 130° F; at 140° F, it takes only five seconds; at 160° degrees, it only takes one second. For children under 5, these temperatures can cause a burn in half the time.
According to the National Safe Kids Campaign, most scalds occur while bathing. Continuous supervision of young children is the most important factor in preventing tap-water scald injuries, but there are additional simple preventive measures that can be taken. These include lowering the temperature settings on water heaters to 120° F or less and installing anti-scald devices on water faucets and showerheads. When bathing a child, fill the bathtub with cold water first. Mix in warmer water carefully and place the child away from the faucet. The bath water temperature should be about 100° F. Test the water temperature by moving a hand rapidly through the water. If the water feels hot to an adult, it is too hot for a child.
Some tips to prevent scalds in the kitchen include testing heated food and liquids before serving children and keeping young children away from cooking and sink areas when in use. Also, be aware that toddlers can pull on tablecloths and appliance cords, spilling hot items on themselves, so it is important to keep foods and liquids away from the edges of counters and tables. Another safety tip is to avoid using area rugs in the kitchen. They can contribute to falls and, secondarily, scalds.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urges all users to lower their water heaters to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to preventing accidents, this decrease in temperature will conserve energy and save money.
Most adults will suffer third-degree burns if exposed to 150 degree water for two seconds. Burns will also occur with a six-second exposure to 140 degree water or with a thirty second exposure to 130 degree water. Even if the temperature is 120 degrees, a five minute exposure could result in third-degree burns.
Various procedures for lowering water temperature in the home exist, depending on the method of heating. Here are some suggestions:
- Electric water heaters. Call your local electric company to adjust the thermostat. Some companies offer this service at no-charge. Hot water should not be used for at least two hours prior to setting. To make the adjustment yourself, start by shutting off current to the water heater, then turn off the circuit breaker to the heater or remove the fuse that serves the heater. Most electric water heaters have two thermostats, both of which must be set to a common temperature for proper operation. To reach these thermostats you must remove the upper and lower access panels. Adjust the thermostat following the instructions provided with the appliance. Hold a candy or meat thermometer under the faucet to check water temperature.
- Gas water heaters. Because thermostats differ, call your local gas company for instructions. Where precise temperatures are not given, hold a candy or meat thermometer under faucet for most accurate reading first thing in the morning or at least two hours after water use. If reading is too high, adjust thermostat on heater, according to manufacturers instructions, and check again with thermometer.
- Furnace heater. If you do not have an electric, gas, or oil-fired water heater, you probably have an on-line hot water system. Contact your fuel supplier to have the temperature lowered. If you live in an apartment, contact the building manager to discuss possible options for lowering your tap water temperature. Reducing water temperature will not affect the heating capacity of the furnace.
- Use anti-scald devicesfor faucets and shower heads to prevent burns and set your water heater temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
The CPSC notes that a thermostat setting of 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) may be necessary for residential water heaters to reduce or eliminate the risk of most tap water scald injuries. Consumers should consider lowering the thermostat to the lowest settings that will satisfy hot water needs for all clothing and dish washing machines.