Home safe home: Dangers lurk in harmless places

Healthy mattersChildren have an amazing ability to turn something seemingly harmless into something dangerous. The end of a wooden spoon becomes a sword that"can put your eye out” or the living room sofa becomes a trampoline where one misplaced step could end with an emergency room visit and a cast.

Most parents look out for these dangers, but there are dangers in your home that may surprise you.

So here’s a quiz: Which of the following common household items could cause serious injury to your child? The microwave, the TV, the dresser, the bathtub. If your answer is"all of the above” give yourself a gold star. If you missed even one, you may want to take another look at your house through the eyes of a child.

In most cases a television is pretty harmless. In fact, in many homes no one ever touches the TV because a remote control does all of the work. But a TV on an unstable surface like a tray or a flimsy stand can become a hazard, especially for very young children.

When toddlers are learning to walk they use any surface they can find to pull up to standing. Even the slight pressure exerted by a toddler can cause some stands to collapse and every year children are seriously injured when a TV topples over and crushes them. Injuries range from broken bones to severe brain damage and even death. As TV designs get thinner and lighter we may eventually see this injury disappear, but for now it’s best to be sure your television is on a secure, stable surface that won’t collapse or tip when pressure is applied.

Another serious crush injury can occur from a simple dresser. A young child trying to reach something on top cleverly sees the drawers as a ladder. They pull out the bottom drawer, stand on the edge and suddenly they’re a foot taller and can reach the desired object. Unfortunately, this also places increased weight on the front drawer and the entire dresser can tip over onto the child. To avoid this injury keep children’s toys at their level and discourage your child from climbing on furniture.

The bathtub presents a risk for drowning, but severe burns can also occur in the bathtub. Scald burns can happen quickly and are extremely painful. It may be surprising to learn that water above 150 degrees takes just two seconds to cause a burn. That’s really not enough time to get your child out of the tub even if you respond quickly. At 140 degrees scald burns take about seven seconds, but water below 120 degrees is safe and will not cause burns even with prolonged contact. In some cases children get burned when they turn on the hot water faucet during bathtub play. Even if you never let your child touch the faucet, children move fast and can reach for the knobs before you know it. Turn down your water heater to 120 degrees or less so that no matter how long you run the hot water from the tap your child can never get a scald. If you rent your home ask your landlord to turn down the water heater. Yes, you will run out of hot water faster, but a severe scald burn requires weeks of hospitalization, several surgeries and lifelong disfigurement. In addition, filling a bathtub full of water and failing to test it before bathing a young child can lead to disaster. Never place your child into the tub without checking the temperature first. For added safety you can also buy a simple water thermometer that will tell you when the water is too hot for a child.

The microwave oven poses another burn hazard. Very young children watch their parents put things into the microwave, push some buttons and warm up food. A child may copy that behavior using random items like toys, foil-covered foods or tightly closed containers. They program the oven by randomly pushing buttons and in just a few minutes they can get a serious burn or cause a fire in the oven. The problem is microwaves are very easy for children to open. In fact, most 3-year-olds can exert enough pressure to open a typical microwave. Until manufacturers make microwaves safer, it’s best to keep your oven out of easy reach and never allow your child to touch it, even to push the start button.

Let’s face it, it’s impossible to make any home completely safe, but being aware of these hidden household dangers can help.

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at drlisathornton@gmail.com.

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