Weeks before Christmas, Kathy Mae Shaw, a 44-year-old Philadelphia resident was spending a chilly winter evening looking after her 4-year old grandson, Marquise Tyre Stratton when she turned on the space heater in her living room.
Her 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son were out with friends, and Shaw and the boy went to sleep in second floor bedrooms -- leaving the heater burning downstairs.
They never woke up.
The heater ignited a nearby couch with fire that quickly spread through the two-story brick rowhouse and the downstairs smoke detector wasn't loud enough.
Firefighters found the two in their beds, took them to Einstein Medical Center, but both were pronounced dead a half hour later.
Both succumbed to smoke inhalation.
The safety of space heaters has improved in recent years, but the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with their use and more than 300 people die in such fires.
The commissions also says 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.
Improper use of even the safest space heaters can cause fires and burns due to people and items coming in close contact with the flame, heating element, or hot surface area. Fires and explosions can be caused by flammable fuels or defective wiring. And carbon monoxide poisoning can be caused by improper venting or incomplete combustion of fuel-burning equipment.
CPSC offers space heater type-specific safety information, but also makes the following general suggestions for the selection and safe use of all space heaters.
- Select a space heater with a guard around the flame area or the heating element to help keep children, pets and clothing away from the heat source. Many of the newest electric space heaters are virtually always cool to the touch.
- When selecting a heater, look for one that has been tested and certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory. These heaters have been determined to meet specific safety standards, and manufacturers are required to provide important use and care information to the consumer.
- Buy a heater that is the correct size for the area you want to heat. The wrong size heater could produce more pollutants and may not be energy efficient.
- Read and follow the manufacturer's operating instructions. Read aloud the instructions and warning labels to all members of the household to be certain that everyone hears and understands how to safely operate the heater. Keep the owner's manual in a convenient place to refer to.
- Keep children and pets away from space heaters. Do not allow children to operate them and never leave a child alone in a room with a space heater turned on.
- Never leave a space heater on while you sleep or when you leave an area.
- Place heaters at least three feet away from flammable objects such as bedding, furniture and drapes. Never use heaters to dry clothes or shoes. Never place objects on a heater. Do not place heaters where towels or other objects could fall on the heater and start a fire.
- Keep doors open to the rest of the house if you are using an unvented fuel-burning space heater. This helps to prevent pollutant build-up and promotes proper combustion. Even unvented heaters require ventilation for proper combustion.
- Never use or store flammable liquids around a space heater. Flammable vapors can flow from one part of the room to another and be ignited by the open flame or by an electrical spark.
- Only electric or vented fuel-fired heaters should be used in mobile homes.
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