Ask an expert: Is my fireplace safe?

WibbenmeyerLThe chill of an Iowa winter is often calmed with the warmth of a gas fireplace. They’re cozy and convenient, but these fireplaces come with a risk: Those built before January 2015 don’t come with safety screens. The glass front on a gas fireplace can reach up to 1,328 degrees Fahrenheit, causing severe burns on contact.

We asked Lucy Wibbenmeyer, MD, an acute care surgeon at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics who specializes in burn injuries, about the importance of fireplace safety.

What do we mean by ‘fireplace safety?’

Fireplace safety refers to the steps that should be taken to keep individuals safe from danger. When we speak about the dangers of fireplaces, we are really talking about burn prevention.

What kinds of fireplaces are most dangerous?

All fireplaces can pose a burn hazard. Reliance on parental supervision, while important, is really often not adequate. Both the more traditional fireplaces and the newer gas burning fireplaces can pose burn hazards. Children, in particular, are attracted to fire. The dangers with the open fireplaces are obvious. Many people are unaware of the burn dangers associated with gas fireplace fronts that can reach temperatures high enough to cause a burn on contact.

Who is most at risk of getting hurt?

Children are most at risk, but elderly patients or physically disabled people who may lose their balance can also be at risk.

What can families do to prevent injury?

The first question that should be asked is, “Do you need a fire?” This is particularly true when there are small children around and adequate supervision may not be likely – for example, at a party. If you choose to use the fireplace then, in addition to supervision, barriers should be used. Strong metal gates should be used for open fireplaces and manufactured fireplace screens for gas fireplaces. As of January 2015, all newly purchased gas fireplaces come with barrier screens. Owners of previously purchased gas fireplaces should call their fireplace manufacturer for a safety screen that fits their model. When properly installed, these prevent burns. Of course, talking to your children about the dangers of fire and fireplaces is always important.

What should you do if an injury does occur?

For small burns – on a child’s fingers or palm of the hand – the affected area should be cooled with water. If blistering occurs, parents should seek medical care. If a child’s clothes catch on fire, parents should put out the flames with a blanket or roll the child on the ground.  The burned clothing should be removed and the child wrapped in a warm blanket. The parents then should seek immediate medical attention.

How many people are treated for fireplace-related burns at UI Hospitals & Clinics and University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital each year?

At the University of Iowa, we see fireplace burns every month during the winter. During the colder winters we usually see two to three toddlers with palm burns due to touching gas fireplace doors. The vast majority of these heal with good wound care; unfortunately, some need surgery that can lead to scarring and restrictions in movement of the fingers.

Last reviewed: 
December 2018

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