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Dangers of Portable Heaters

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Dangers of Portable Heaters

Feb 20, 2014

Every house probably has a portable heater. There’s so much stuff in-between you and those heating elements, how could you possibly burn yourself? Well, you can. From the University of Utah Burn Center, Annette Matherly explains why and how portable heaters can be a serious burn hazard, even if you’re not anywhere near it. She also talks about what to do in a worse case scenario caused by portable heaters.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: Probably just about every house has one. Talking about a portable heater, and you would think that they would be fairly safe, I mean, there is so much stuff in between you and those heating elements, how could you possible burn yourself? Well, you can burn yourself.
Annette Matherly is the Outreach Education and Burn Disaster Coordinator at the Burn Center at University of Utah Health Care. I wouldn't think that a portable heater would be a serious burn hazard, but it is.

Annette Matherly: Absolutely. Especially if it's in a kid's room. Kids are naturally curious about hot things. You know, when they're a year old, we give them a candle with a cake and they blow it out and they think they can control fire, and then we reward them with gifts and cake so why are we surprised when they want to prod and play and light fires and touch fires?
So obviously children are very curious about fire, and so they will touch it. They will touch the bars. They will put things in it. Kids, again, love to play and they'll build tents, and they'll put the heater in the tent because the tent is cold, and they'll put things around the fire, and they'll throw clothes in a pile, and those clothes are too close to those fires. There should be a three foot radius around any portable heater, and when those things are closer than that, they will ignite and they will ignite very quickly.

Interviewer: So the real danger of portable heaters more so is of a fire starting, not so much, I'm touching it I'm going to get burned.

Annette Matherly: Absolutely.

Interviewer: Even with the modern-day heaters with all of these safety things? I mean, my heater, sometimes it just shuts off when I get too close to it because I don't know why.

Annette Matherly: Well, you know the heaters that blow hot air are a little bit different. Oftentimes the heaters that cause the fires are propane heaters . . .

Interviewer: Oh, okay.

Annette Matherly: . . . and are the electric heaters with the coils. And so, those get extremely hot and oftentimes they have open bars. And so those are usually what catches, ignites curtains and then the curtains catch on fire.
The other thing with propane heaters, or actually with any heater is that if you are working in a garage, so let's say you have your heater in the garage and maybe you are working with an accelerant and those fumes that come off those accelerants are pretty dense and they travel really fast and when they hit the heater, they can ignite.

Interviewer: Let's talk about some preventative things as kind of our final thought here. What are some things you can do with portable heaters to prevent these things from happening?

Annette Matherly: You know, always, always have a three foot radius around any heater no matter what kind of heater it is. You know, make sure that your bedding isn't close, make sure that the curtains aren't close. Sometimes we have long curtains that drape down against a heater that's on the wall.
Talk to our children and to our families about the importance of staying away, you know, knowing that children are naturally curious and love that warm glow, to talk to our children and to say, you know, this is hot and let's talk about what hot is.
The other thing would be to always have a home escape plan, to make sure that in the worst possible scenario if something were to happen, that our families and ourselves have a plan that we can talk to our kids about stop, dropping, and rolling in case they, you know, they catch on fire from backing too close whether it be at our home or it be a neighbor's home.

Also, to talk to them about the basics going back to kindergarten, and to make sure that we have a place to meet outside of the home, a safe meeting place. A place where everyone can gather so that firefighters, when they're fighting a blaze in that house aren't going back in for a child that's maybe in the backyard or a parent that's in the backyard when people think that they're still in the house.

Interviewer: Any final thoughts or anything that I forgot to mention?

Annette Matherly: You know, I guess the final thought would be that burn injuries last a lifetime. They are painful, they take a lot of recovery time, they take a lot of psychological recovery too. You know, when you have been in an event engulfed in flames, that memory lasts a long time and sometimes lasts a lifetime, and so the recovery process might be a few weeks in the burn center, but it might be years and it might be a lifetime post-injury.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.