20 March 2006

Space Heaters

Space heaters are dangereous.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) supplemental heating equipment, such as electrical and kerosene heaters, is the leading cause of home fires during the months of December, January and February and trails only cooking equipment as the leading cause of home fires year-round.


The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with the use of room (space) heaters. More than 300 persons die in these fires. An estimated 6,000 persons receive hospital emergency room care for burn injuries associated with contacting hot surfaces of room heaters, mostly in non-fire situations.

Colorado ws reminded of that fact this week.

The cries of his 18-month-old granddaughter joined with the piercing whistle of a smoke detector as a bleary-eyed Joseph Mix fought through haze and heat early Thursday, trying to get to the trapped child.
His efforts left him with first- and second-degree burns on his hands and head - and a heart full of sadness.

Jade Mendez, a toddler her father called "Honey Bunny," didn't survive.

Investigators believe the blaze was started by a space heater the family was using to keep the girl warm as she slept in her crib. The child's mother set up the old electrical coil heater in the child's bedroom after the furnace broke down, family members said.

While generally, my regulars know that I am a big fan of Voltaire's injunction that the best is the enemy of the good, it is hard to say that it fits this case. The family in question, was lucky to have a roof over their head at all.

The family rented the three-bedroom brick house from a nonprofit church group, Save A Child Inc., which provides temporary housing to low-income residents.

Good intentions weren't enough to save this child's life.

The child's father, Paul Mendez, said the landlord, the Rev. Tommy Moore, came to look at the furnace last week after Jade's mother reported it wasn't working, but the family said no work had been done to repair it.

Records show that Joelene Mix contacted a tenant-landlord dispute line earlier this week, seeking advice, but did not follow through on a referral to another agency.

Paul Mendez, who is not married to Joelene Mix, characterized the house as being in disrepair. The circuit breaker was malfunctioning and only one outlet worked in the bedroom where Jade slept, he said.

Fire officials emphasize the importance of working smoke detectors, noting that:

In the past five days, an estimated 40 people have died in house fires in the U.S., Olshanski said. Each year, more than 4,000 people die nationwide in house fires and another 20,000 are injured.

Olshanski said that some of those lives could have been saved if homes had functioning smoke detectors. "About 80 percent of those homes didn't have smoke alarms or they were not working," she said.

But, in the most recent Colorado case, the smoke detectors did work. What happens?

Children younger than 5 and elderly people are the most affected group in house fires.

"Imagine a young child waking up. There's people screaming. You can't see, and you can't breathe. Maybe there's animals barking or meowing, and it's total chaos," Olshanski said.

In those situations, children have a tendency to hide in a closet, under the bed or in a toy box, where they feel safe.

And, the quote in the same story urging us to use smoke detectors, about the safety of space heaters would be laughable if it wasn't so serious:

[T]he biggest danger is not the equipment itself, but the way it is used, safety experts said.

"Space heaters by themselves are very safe," said Tom Olshanski, a spokesman for the U.S. Fire Administration.

Funny that. It is true that the space heating is not likely to turn itself on and attack you out of malice. Indeed, I have a hard time imagining any product that is dangerous if used properly. General aviation aircraft, automobiles, construction explosives, sidewalks, firearms, electrical outlets and more are very safe is used properly. But, they also, collectively, kill tens of thousands of people per year.

The measure of a safe product should be how many people end up being harmed by it empirically. Products that, for whatever reason, people have a tendency to use improperly, are not safe. And, one's expectations should also be driven by the likely consumer. People who have well heated homes, which make up a very large proportion of the population, don't use space heaters. They are used, overwhelmingly, in situations like this one, where a family lives in a home where the furnace doesn't work, or the old house isn't well insulated. Usually, this happens because the family can't afford the heater. Often, the instruction book with the safety warnings is long gone by the time the space heater is used. The reality is that in the case of any seemingly straightforward product, the only warnings that mean anything are those that appear in big print on the object itself. And, some of the rules governing space heaters, like the need to keep them three feet away from anything else, are not obvious or can be difficult to focus on amidst the chaos of raising small children or dealing with the needs of an elderly relative.

It may be that most space heaters simply are not safe enough for use in heating bedrooms, even if they may have a place heating garages and other areas that aren't usually heated and customarily are used only when the occupants are awake.

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