It was nearly bedtime on July 27, 2010, when Sean Whelan and his wife, Melissa Panico, heard the crying and choking sounds coming from the living room. It had been a tranquil day. The parents and their two kids, 11-month-old Signe and 3-year-old Oscar, had just returned to their Pacific Heights home from an ice cream outing. But now there was panic.
Signe stood beside the house's gas fireplace, her palms seared onto its glass window. Melissa rushed over and pulled the infant's hands away. Signe's palms were black and brown. By the time the family reached the hospital, Sean says, the girl's palms had turned a terrifying white, looking almost "like melted plastic."
The Whelans, Sean notes, had only turned on their fireplace once since they'd had it installed in 2007. It set the ambience for a charity fundraiser they hosted several months back. Like a lot of other people, Sean appreciated the fireplace more for its aesthetics: a neat, modernist rectangle encased in glass along the base of the living room wall, more environmentally friendly and easier to maintain than the open-faced wood-burning variety. That one time they lit it, it looked like a high-definition video of a fireplace. And, fittingly, the only way to turn it on was with a small remote control. Whelan, who works as a residential developer, was so fond of the appliance that he installed the same model — the Valor brand made by Vancouver, British Columbia-based Miles Industries — in more than a dozen San Francisco houses that his company fixed up and sold.
The Whelans' remote sat mostly untouched on a stand on a mantel. But, on that afternoon in July 2010, the babysitter hadn't noticed when Oscar, playing, accidentally knocked the device onto the ground, igniting a small hidden flame. As day turned to night, the unseen fire slowly warmed the glass front. By bedtime, the glass was scalding.
Afterward, a sense of loneliness and guilt struck the parents as they navigated the medical process, which included skin-peeling and skin grafts using flesh from Signe's thigh. (Skin grafts are particularly challenging for small children because their bones quickly outgrow the new skin just as they outgrow clothes.) "We thought, 'Wow, what a couple of dumb parents,'" Sean says, shaking his head. In the days after his daughter was burned, Whelan called the residents of those homes he had installed the fireplaces in to warn them. Though none reported any problems, it turned out that the Whelans' was not an isolated incident.
A 2004 American Burn Association study concluded that "We have seen an alarming increase in the incidence of pediatric palm burns associated with gas fireplaces. The increasing popularity of these units places more children at risk. While there are no official statistics available, U.S. Sen. Al Franken has cited one estimate, first reported by consumer protection site FairWarning.org in 2011, that claimed that between 1999 and 2009, around 2,000 children aged five and under suffered burns from glass enclosed fireplaces." Between 2009 and April 2011, at least four such incidents led to lawsuits, in California, Colorado, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
In May 2011, the Whelans also sued, claiming that Miles Industries should be held liable for the family's medical costs and emotional damages. That legal process is ongoing.
The issue is over how much responsibility fireplace makers have to protect consumers from getting burned by their products. For a fireplace to be certified under American National Standards Institute, exposed surfaces must not exceed 117 degrees. These regulations, however, specifically exclude the glass fronts, which can reach nearly 500 degrees. Sean Whelan didn't know that. He assumed the window covering a fireplace worked like the heat-shielded glass on oven doors.
Industry executives, though, had been fully aware for years. Court documents from Whelan's case show that in February 2005, Martin Miles, head of Miles Industries, sent a letter accepting an invitation to participate in "an Ad Hoc Working Group to address glass front temperatures." (Miles Industries did not return a call seeking an interview).
"I was recently approached by the head of the Vancouver Children's Hospital Burn Unit on this issue," Miles wrote. "She followed up with a graphic photo of a burned toddler's hand. This is an issue that deserves attention."
As industry executives met to discuss the issue, various potential solutions emerged. New York-based inventor William Lerner pitched the group on his patent — an LED light that would signal when the glass reached a certain temperature. One company, Hearth and Home Technology, decided to install mesh screens over its product's glass windows. The majority of the manufacturers, though, did nothing. By 2009, the only industry-wide shift, implemented by the ANSI, was a requirement that instruction manuals include a "Hot Glass Will Cause Burns" warning.
"The problem is people are unaware of how hot these fireplace glass doors actually get,"says Curt Monhart, a former marketing executive for Michigan-based Hart and Cooley, which supplied ventilation products to the fireplace makers. "It would be to the detriment of the manufacturers to increase the visibility of what the dangers are."
And then came the lawsuits and the national attention. In March 2011, two months before the Whelan family filed suit, Franken began declaring that the Consumer Protection Safety Commission create mandatory federal regulations for the fireplace industry "to reduce the burn hazard of glass-enclosed fireplaces." In June 2011, Lennox Fireplace, one of the industry's biggest companies, settled a lawsuit with the family of an infant who had suffered burns similar to Signe's, agreeing to send protective screens to 500,000 people who owned the appliance. More recently, Dan Dillard, executive director of the American Burn Association, announced that his organization, working with a network of hospitals, will soon release the first study that officially quantifies how often these accidents occur.
The industry buckled. In December 2012, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, the industry group that oversees fireplace makers, announced that it would implement a new voluntary standard: By 2015, companies must provide protective screens with each glass-encased fireplace.
By then, Signe Whelan will be in first grade, still growing into her hands.