Lila Stephens was 11 months old when she suffered third-degree burns to her hands from touching the glass front of a fireplace at a resort in Wisconsin. To stave off regulation and lawsuits over severe burns to toddlers, manufacturers will provide protective screens as standard equipment with new gas fireplaces over the next two years.
The industry has revised its voluntary guidelines to call for mesh screens to be attached to new fireplaces to prevent contact with the scorching glass fronts, which get hot enough to melt skin.
Fireplace makers will have until Jan. 1, 2015, to put screens on new units, though firms are already retooling to do it sooner, said senior manager Tom Stroud of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an industry group.
As reported by the nonprofit investigative group FairWarning, more than 2,000 children ages 5 and under were injured by contact with fireplace glass in a recent 10-year period, according to a federal database, with many suffering second- and third-degree burns. That has triggered at least a dozen lawsuits and scrutiny by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which last year sought public comments on the need for federal standards.
Specifications for the screens will be in guidelines that will be published in the next few weeks by the American National Standards Institute, which certifies voluntary standards for the industry.
Separately, the hearth and patio association has launched an information campaign to alert current owners of an estimated 11 million gas fireplaces that the glass can get dangerously hot, and that they should buy a screen from a fireplace store if children are in the home. Many users of gas fireplaces weren't the original purchasers and never saw any warning statements.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission is holding off on rules in response to the industry moves.
Jerome Tapley, a Birmingham, Ala., attorney involved in lawsuits against several fireplace makers, said it was "very troubling" that the companies will have more than two years to begin providing the screens, and that no plans exist to offer retrofits to current owners.
Dan Dillard, executive director of the nonprofit Burn Prevention Network and chairman of the prevention committee of the American Burn Association, said the safety commission should adopt mandatory standards, rather than rely on voluntary steps by the industry.
Dillard said he believes the federal estimate of about 200 child burn cases per year is unrealistically low, and noted that new injury data from leading pediatric burn centers will be coming out soon. The aim, he said, will be to "bring a spotlight focus to the severity of this."
Two top fireplace makers already provide safety screens with each new gas fireplace. Hearth & Home Technologies of Lakeville, Minn., for several years has included screens with its glass-enclosed fireplaces. And in 2011, Lennox Hearth Products of Nashville began offering a free attachable screen with each fireplace as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit.
Up to now, most makers have not offered screens or big safety warnings out of fear of marring the aesthetic appeal of fireplaces or scaring off customers.