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Microwaves Pose Significant Burn Injury Risk to Small Children

Oct 8, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP A new study reveals microwave ovens pose a serious safety hazard to young children.  The study reviewed scald burn injuries and University of Chicago Burn Center records and indicated that hot foods or hot liquids heated in microwave ovens were the fourth leading cause of scald injuries in children under five years old.

"Parents do need to teach their toddlers and their older children that the microwave is a potential source of danger as much as the stove is," Dr. Gina Lowell of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, one of the researchers on the study, said.  Lowell and her colleagues are asking microwave oven manufacturers to install mechanisms to prevent children from opening a microwave after something has been heated in order to prevent these sorts of scalding injuries.  Lowell and her team’s report appears in the journal Pediatrics.

The team states that, to date, scald injury prevention efforts have only focused on having parents turn down their water heaters so water temperature never exceeds 120 degrees; however, such tap-water scald injuries only represent a small percentage of overall reported scald injuries.  These injuries remain the leading cause of burn-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations in young children.

As part of their research, Lowell and her team looked for trends of other types of scald injuries in young children and worked to identify ways in which to prevent these types of injuries.  To accomplish this, Lowell and her colleagues reviewed the records of 140 children under five years of age who were admitted to the University of Chicago Burn Center.  Of those injuries, 104 were not the result of tap water.  Of the 104, 90.4 percent originated from hot foods or liquids.  Of these, 17 injuries—representing 16.3 percent—took place when an older child was cooking, carrying the hot substance, or supervising the injured child.  Nine injuries—or 8.7 percent—occurred to children who had opened the microwave themselves and removed the substance inside; the youngest child injured in this way was 18 months old.

Lowell explained that it can be difficult to keep young children away from kitchen hazards, especially in those cases when an adult is alone at home and trying to cook dinner.  Regardless, parents are advised to keep a child sufficiently distanced if it is necessary for the child to be in the kitchen while food is being prepared, Lowell said, adding that—in such a case—place younger children in a high chair or create a safe play area.  "Most parents feel like they've got it covered ... and yet we see all of these scald burns that happen to children," Lowell noted.

Young children have thinner skin than older children and adults; therefore, their skin burns at lower temperatures and more deeply.  A child exposed to hot water at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for three seconds will sustain a third-degree burn, an injury requiring hospitalization and skin grafts.  Also, children, especially those ages four and under, may not sense danger, may have less control of their environment, may lack the ability to escape a life-threatening burn situation, and may not be able to tolerate the physical stress of a burn injury.

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