If your home hot water temperature is higher than 120 degrees F., you are placing yourself and your family at risk for serious scalds and unnecessary pain. Hot water can burn like fire, yet hot water heaters are often set higher than 120 degrees.

Scald burns occur as a result of contact with hot liquid or steam and represent a significant hazard. The average length of stay in the hospital for a tap water scald burn is 17 days. Scalds from hot liquids are the major cause of nonfatal burn-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations.Tap water scald injuries occur most frequently in the bathtub or shower but may also occur in the kitchen or bathroom sink. Most victims are children younger than 5 years. Hot water is particularly harmful for young children. Because their skin is thinner than adults', it burns deeply and at lower temperatures.

Others at risk for injury include the elderly and those with physical or mental disability. Elderly people are more vulnerable due to less sensitive skin and slower reaction times. These three risk groups (small children, the elderly and the disabled) account for almost 90 percent of those burned by hot tap water. These individuals have in common a decreased perception of danger, less control over their environment and slower reaction time to a burn situation. Similar prevention approaches could therefore be used to protect all three groups.

Prevention

In the bath:

Run cold water into the tub first, then add hot water to reach a safe temperature. This will prevent a scald burn if the child should fall into the tub while it is being filled.

- Before placing a child into the bathtub, check the temperature of the water by moving your hand through the water for a few seconds. If the water feels hot, it is too hot for the child. The temperature should not exceed 100 degrees F.

- Toys in the bathtub may establish the tub and bathroom as a play area. Give the child a washcloth instead of a toy.

- Face the child away from the faucets and keep them closer to the other end of the tub (away from the faucets).

- Never leave a young child unattended in the bathroom or tub.

- Use extreme caution if bathing a small child in the sink. Many sinks have single-lever faucets that are easy for small children to turn on.

- Take the phone off the hook while bathing a child. This will maintain continuous supervision of the child who is in the bathtub and thus prevent the child from turning on the hot water valve or even drowning.

Make the environment safer

- Lower the thermostat setting of the water heater. A temperature of 120 degrees F. should provide plenty of hot water for normal household activities. Your clothes and dishes will get clean at this setting.

Note: The Burn Institute, San Diego, Calif., and the Shriner's Burn Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, report that third-degree burns can occur at these times and temperatures: at 133 degrees in 15 seconds; at 140 degrees, in 5 seconds; at 149 degrees, it takes only about 2 seconds; at 156 degrees, 1 second.

- Gas water heaters can be easily adjusted. Electric water heaters require disconnecting (shutting off) the electricity to the water heater and removing the cover plates to adjust the thermometer. Check with your utility company for directions to adjust an electric water heater.

- After the thermostat is turned down, check the temperature 24 hours later by running the hot water to make sure the temperature is low enough to be safe.

- Consider installing "anti-scald" valves on tub faucets and shower heads to prevent accidental scalds.

- Purchasing a sensing device is another way to protect. These devices automatically stop the water when the temperature is too high, letting it flow again once it cools. Sensing devices are relatively easy to install. However, the various types of valves that can shut off water at a set temperature must be installed by a plumber.

First aid

If anyone is burned by scalding, run cool water over the burn. Cover the burn with a clean cloth and seek medical attention.

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Additional Information

Burning point

Hot water causes third-degree burns

In 1 second at 156 degrees F

In 2 seconds at 149 degrees F

In 5 seconds at 140 degrees F

In 15 seconds at 133 degrees F