Jan 29, 2014

Interviewer: Medical news and research from the University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope. There's nothing better in the wintertime than gathering around a warm fireplace with the family, but it can be dangerous, and maybe in ways you haven't considered. We're talking with Brad Wiggins, Nurse Manager of Community Outreach of the University of Utah Healthcare Burn Center. So fireplaces and glass fireplaces is what you said you wanted to talk about. What's the difference between a regular, old school and a glass fireplace, and what's the concern?

Brad Wiggins: Sure. Well, they both have significant dangers for risk of burn injury. But particularly, this time of year here in Utah and throughout the Intermountain West, we really see a very high percentage of children, particularly toddlers, that do not understand the safety risks of how hot the glass gets. Parents leave a small child in a room where the fire's going, and I don't think, really, there's been a lot of emphasis on education to help people to understand the dangers of those risks and how detrimental it can be.

Interviewer: I'd imagine a lot of parents say, 'That's fire. That's bad.' But they never say, 'That's glass. That's hot.'

Brad Wiggins: Absolutely. I think that those are the risks of parenthood; the safety moments where you think everything's fine, and you find yourself trapped in one of those moments where, all of a sudden, it comes back to get you. I think that, really, the emphasis here is about education, teaching people, and getting the word out about those safety risks. Right now, particularly in an environment here where we have this incredibly difficult inversion, people do use a lot more natural gas fireplaces. They have a lot more glass, and the glass is getting bigger. People are choosing larger, more beautiful types of fireplaces. And they are beautiful, but they come with a very inherent risk.

Interviewer: How hot does that glass get?

Brad Wiggins: Greater than 350 degrees, actually.

Interviewer: You're kidding.

Brad Wiggins: No. It will actually give you a third degree burn in less than one second. And one of the biggest complications we see if it's toddlers who are pushing around the room and pushing off the furniture, they get to the glass, and they put both hands on, and they lean in with their weight. It's so hot that they actually end up sticking to the glass and they can't pull themselves off. It gives you a third degree burn to the entire palm or surface of your hand. So not only are you dealing with a burn, but you're dealing with a third degree burn that must be skin grafted, and it will impact the movement and the functionality of that hand for the rest of that child's life.

Interviewer: Is a child's skin more easily burned than an adult's? I mean, at 350 degrees, I don't know if it's really . . .

Brad Wiggins: Absolutely. But if you think about an adult's hand, they have callous all over it. They have a little bit more reaction time where they know they're touching something hot, and they pull off. So a toddler doesn't understand the instinct that once they touch something hot they should pull off. The reaction is different. They feel something hot. They feel the pain. They start screaming. They're looking around for someone to help them, and they don't remove their hands from the glass. They actually stay attached for a longer period of time, and it sounds absolutely horrible, it's incredibly difficult to recover from, and it really leads itself to a lot of long-term complications throughout life.

Interviewer: And I'd imagine also not just the physical pain, but there's some mental thing. I bet you'd never forget that.

Brad Wiggins: I'm sure that you won't. From a parent perspective, I think you deal with a lot of people who are not forgiving themselves for allowing that to happen in their home. Again, it's an accident just, like, if you get in a car accident. Things happen.

Interviewer: What about prevention other than trying to tell the child, 'Be careful,' which might be lost on the child? So what else do you recommend?

Brad Wiggins: The number one thing that you can do if you have a small child is don't use your glass fireplace. If you're going to be sitting in the room with your small child toddling around, don't turn the fireplace on. The second thing would be definitely get a screen in place. There's lots of different types of opportunities and different manufactures out there for you to find that actually have types of coverings that keep your child from actually getting to the glass fireplace.

Interviewer: Any final thoughts?

Brad Wiggins: If you walk into the room, the fireplace is on and you go to turn it off, it doesn't immediately cool the glass. It's actually been recorded that it takes almost 25 minutes for that glass to actually cool in that room to a safe, touchable thing. The other issue is that most of them are actually hot right now. Your pilot light's in there running. Whether you're at work or home or wherever you are, it might not be on, but it still actually has quite a bit of heat. You'll be surprised. So feel it and get an idea of what exactly what you're dealing with. Protect yourself. Put those screens around it. Turn them off. Teach your kids not to teach that area if possible. But still, at a toddler age, they just don't know. Again, don't use it. Put a screen around it if you have to use it for some reason and that's your main heating source for your home in the wintertime. Protect your young ones. Protect your families. Really pay attention to those safety needs of each of those children.

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

For Patients