March 20, 2007

Study: Youngsters suffer most burns in the home

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — For children 3 years and younger, there's no place like home for getting a serious burn.

"A higher percentage of injuries due to hot objects or substances (92 percent) were more likely to occur in the patients' place of residence, when compared with other types of unintentional injuries," wrote Bart J. Hammig and Roberta J. Ogletree of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Department of Health Education and Recreation in an article that appeared in the "American Journal of Health Behavior" last year.

That's not so surprising, said Hammig, who also heads SIUC's Safety Center.

"That's where kids this age spend most of their time," he noted.

Three items you'd find in almost any household caused the bulk of the burns. Hot food accounted for about one-fourth of the injuries; clothing irons and curling irons burned a similar number.

"When you think about it, cooking, ironing and fixing your hair are typically activities where the parent or caregiver is multi-tasking," Hammig said.

"That distraction allows for an increase in risk."

In doing their study, Hammig and Ogletree pored over six years of data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Surveys looking for statistics on unintentional, burn-related, contact injuries to babies and toddlers.

They also examined hospital staff notes made at the time of each patient's visit as to how the burns occurred, a novel approach that added specific detail to the broad classification "contact injuries."

The sample size, roughly 78,000 children annually, was large enough to allow the researchers to generalize their findings to cover all American children under the age of 4, Hammig said.

Himself the father of a 4-year-old son, Hammig said injuries happen often to children in this age group.

"When they become mobile, they become more curious in exploring their environments, and injuries become much more likely," he noted.

"One of the reasons I chose to look at burns is that they're one of the more severe injuries. They can leave lasting scars. Ninety percent of the children with burns received follow-up treatment; they didn't just go to the emergency room and then go home. That speaks to the potential severity of these burn injuries."

Though kids don't cook, they spend more time in the kitchen than you might think, Hammig said.

"When kids are very young, parents like to keep them in sight; when parents are in the kitchen, the kids are there, too," he noted.

"When food preparation is occurring, it leaves time for children to be unsupervised, especially when parents or caregivers are multi-tasking."

Hammig suspects, though he can't back it up with data, that microwaves may play a role in the prevalence of burns caused by hot foods and liquids.

"Things can get hot in a very short time in a microwave," he said.

"I think as a population we're not quite used to that yet."

Clothing irons and curling irons share a common characteristic that makes them hazardous: They stay hot for a long time after being switched off, and users can't put them away till they're cool.

"The development of heat guards that would allow you to put something over the hot surface when you're done would make the home environment safer," Hammig said.

That kind of technological fix has sharply reduced the number of children scalded by tap water, Hammig said. Because of a landmark study back in the '70s, companies that make water heaters now routinely preset them to 120 degrees Fahrenheit at the factory.

The hot food problem is not so easily dealt with.

"It takes more vigilance on the part of parents and caregivers, perhaps increased awareness of potential dangers in the kitchen, perhaps testing the foods before they give them to the kids," Hammig said.

Hammig also urges parents to remember how quickly children in this age group develop.

"Just when you think you have all the preventive measures in place, the child hits another developmental milestone and you have to change your safety barriers," he said.