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Microwave ovens have led to thousands of kids getting burned, doctors warn

Microwaves being changed to protect kids
New safety requirements for microwaves aim to keep young kids from grabbing hot food 01:41

Microwave ovens will soon have a new safety feature that is long overdue: child-resistant doors. The addition of the critical new feature comes thanks to the persistence of pediatrician Kyran Quinlan and his colleagues, who took note of how many kids were showing up with burns at their Chicago hospital and decided to do something about it. 

The ease with which toddlers can operate microwaves has led to thousands of them getting burned, many severely, when removing hot soup or other liquids from the common household appliance and having it spill onto their faces and chests, the researchers found

In burn units across the country, roughly 22% of patients are children, and most are admitted for scalds rather than burns sustained in fires, according to the American Burn Association. Most of the those injuries involved preparing or consuming food or drink, the group found

Doctors in pediatric emergency rooms and burn units have long known microwaves to be a fairly common cause of young children getting scalded. But that troubling knowledge has failed to register with regulators, manufacturers and even parents, Quinlan, a pediatrician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told CBS MoneyWatch. To raise awareness, he's led a more than a decade-long campaign to address the risks of microwaves.

7,000 injuries linked to microwaves

Working at the University of Chicago Medical Center's burn unit about 15 years ago, Quinlan noticed that kids were mostly being admitted not because of fires in their homes, but because of what he described as "awful scald burns," which can lead to life-changing and painful disfigurements, he said. One of his colleagues, Dr. Larry Gottlieb, a reconstructive plastic surgeon who specializes in treating burn patients, told him a significant number of children's burns involved microwaves.

Quinlan, Gottlieb and others examined 11 years of medical records and found 7,000 cases of microwave-related burns linked to children as young as 17 months after they were able to start a microwave oven, open the door and remove its contents. 

The researchers eventually took their findings to the U.S. Consumer Products and Safety Commission and ultimately Underwriters Laboratories, or UL, which certifies products as safe. 

For their part, microwave manufacturers told Quinlan and his colleagues that they hadn't received any complaints from consumers about burn risks, he said, or given any indication from families that the product itself was defective.

It may be that most families attributed the injuries to the hot spills rather than the microwave itself. Burns aren't always reported as coming from a microwave, but rather "my child accidentally spilled hot soup on themselves," James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports, told CBS MoneyWatch. "It's difficult to make these connections unless someone is able to take a story and escalate it. In this case, a number of physicians who see these cases every day were able to." 

After a UL standards technical panel voted down a proposal in 2014 to make it safer to open a microwave oven door, Quinlan and another physician, Marla Robinson, became voting members of the 23-member panel — about half of which are manufacturers — and continued lobbying. 

"A torch touching his chest"

"We made a video of a child who had a pretty significant burn, who'd stayed in the burn unit for a week. He remembers feeling like a torch was touching his chest," Quinlan said of a boy who had been burned after an incident using a microwave when he was 4. "Our statistics helped work to convince their minds, the video helped changed their hearts," said Quinlan. 

The proposal passed by one vote in 2018, with only three manufacturers supporting it. The new design standard — which takes effect in March of 2023 — requires microwaves to have "a two-step process for opening microwave doors to help mitigate the risk of children being burned or scalded by cooked food."

Any microwave manufacturer that wants UL certification for their product, which could affect sales, will need to comply with the new standard. That standard requires "two distinct motions to open a microwave — a performance requirement in many other products such as removing a high-chair tray," Nancy Cowles, executive director for Kids in Danger, a nonprofit that advocated for the new standard, said in an email. 

"There are exceptions for microwaves designed to be installed over a stove — too high for young children to reach — and for a disengagement feature for situations where a disability makes the two part motion too difficult," she added.

"It's a positive outcome that this new standard exists," offered Dickerson at Consumer Reports. He added that it would not be surprising if child-proof microwaves hit store shelves before 2023, as manufacturers try to get a competitive advantage by getting a jump on the safety standard.

While pleased that the new standard is coming into play, Quinlan cautions parents and other caregivers to maintain their vigilance.

"It is going to take a little time before new models replace old ones, so parents of two-, three- and four-year-olds should know their kids are at risk if that microwave is within reach," he said. "We think of stoves as getting hot, but we never think of microwaves as getting hot," the doctor added.

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