Hot Water Hazards

By August 20, 2016Burn Safety
Hot Water Burns

Proceedings are ongoing in the case of Carmen Pleasant, but regardless of the outcome of the criminal trial, a tragedy occurred in Houston on July 31. Nevaeh Cornwall, a two-year-old girl, was taken to Memorial Hermann Hospital after sustaining third-degree burns over much of her torso and extremities caused by a bath that was drawn too hot. But she wasn’t taken to the hospital until twelve hours after she sustained the burns, and by the time she began receiving medical treatment it was too late for doctors to save her life. Nevaeh’s story is a tragic reminder of the dangers that hot water can pose, especially to young children.

According to the American Burn Association, 60 percent of all scald burns, also called wet burns, happen to children between the ages of 0 and 4, and they account for 75 percent of all burns to young children. Children are more susceptible to scald burns for a variety of reasons. First, children are naturally curious and learn by imitating what they see adults doing. This can lead to them turning on water faucets without being aware of how hot the water coming out might be. Second, they have less developed reaction which means they stay in contact with the hot water longer, allowing the water to transfer more heat into their skin. Finally, their skin is thinner. Skin acts as a heat barrier, and children’s thin skin is less efficient at this task which permits heat to penetrate deeper into their body tissue causing more severe burns.

Exponential Characteristic of Heat Transfer

Even for adults, extremely hot water can be dangerous. The table below the amount of time it takes for water at various temperatures to cause a second degree burn to an adult. Notice that there is not a linear relationship. Instead, water becomes exponentially more dangerous the hotter it gets. While the below table focuses on the length of exposure time at various water temperatures necessary to cause second degree burns, it is not meant to imply that deep, third degree burns cannot  also result from exposure to extremely hot water.  On the contrary, persons exposed to the higher water temperatures in the below table often sustain both second and third degree burns.

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Important Precautions

The two most important steps to preventing childhood scald or wet burns are monitoring the temperature of your water heater and supervising children who are in potentially dangerous areas, such as the kitchen and bathroom. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that water heaters be set at or below 120 °F. This temperature will offer less danger of causing burns while still providing water hot enough for most dishwasher or laundry needs. Keep in mind that the table above is in reference to adults, and children will burn more quickly and at lower temperatures.  Even at 120 °F, a child could still receive second degree scald or wet burns. Always hand test water temperature before allowing children to use it and never, under any circumstances, leave children unsupervised in areas where they could be exposed to hot water.

Will Walker

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