Childhood Hazards Can Make a House of Horrors

Jan Hofmann, a regular contributor to Orange County Life, is a former emergency medical technician.

Warning: Your home may be hazardous to your child’s health.

In addition to the obvious dangers, such as swimming pools and pesticides, there are many perils that are overlooked because they are ordinary household objects.

For example, that beautiful bird of paradise plant by the front door. Did you know it’s poisonous? Or that bag of popcorn popping in the microwave; it can cause serious steam burns and shouldn’t be handled by children. The hot dogs you made for lunch, chunks of which are one of the biggest causes of children choking.

Even the ordinary household toilet can lead to tragedy if the lid is left up. A curious toddler might reach toward the water, fall in and drown.

Don’t be embarrassed if any of this is news to you. After all, we may take classes to learn how to become parents, but after we’ve used Lamaze through labor, we’re pretty much on our own.

Family Life asked two Orange County experts, Bette Rothman and Davine Abbott, to help put together a checklist of common household hazards.

Rothman, co-director of Newport Nanny College, is a registered nurse who saw the tragic results of these hazards as an emergency room nurse at Childrens Hospital of Orange County. She now teaches student nannies how to prevent and deal with pediatric emergencies.

Abbott is program director for the Orange County Trauma Society, which offers various community outreach programs aimed at preventing injuries.

The Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross also contributed brochures and other information on emergency preparedness.

“These are things (on the checklist) that can be taken care of by the average everyday person,” Abbott says. “So many problems need to be dealt with by legislation or manufacturers setting limits, but there are things anybody can do to make a home less hazardous.

“Most sound like plain common sense, but often people need to be told again and again.”

For starters, we all should have a list of emergency numbers posted by the phone, even with the 911 emergency system in place. Save 911 for the most serious emergencies, Abbott says. In addition to fires, “call 911 if someone is not breathing, unconscious, or bleeding profusely and you cannot stop it, or if you don’t have the transportation to get someone to the hospital.”

Your list of emergency numbers should include numbers for your local police and fire departments, your family doctor and local hospital, parents at work and the UC Irvine Poison Control Center ((714) 634-5988). Don’t assume you (or the operator) will have time to look up a number in an emergency.

Drowning is the most likely cause of death for children under the age of 4 in Orange County, according to Abbott. But those who die aren’t the only victims, as recent headlines can attest. On March 30, one toddler died after falling into a back-yard pool at an unlicensed North Tustin day-care home; two others nearly drowned and remain comatose.

Abbott says 75 Orange County children 5 and under drowned in back-yard pools and spas between 1982 and 1987. “And for every death, there are always at least 1 or 2 others who nearly drowned and have permanent brain damage,” she says.

“Pools and spas are the No. 1 place these accidents occur,” Abbott says. “The biggest thing we push is having layers of protection: a fence and a pool cover, plus locks on sliding glass doors. The more layers you have, the better.”

“No young child is water safe,” Rothman says. “Once you’ve taught a child to swim, don’t become overconfident. No child under 3 can really be drown-proof, and children even up to 9 years of age should not be left alone near any body of water.”

That means bathtubs too. If the phone rings while you’re bathing a child, don’t leave to answer it. “Children can drown in less than an inch of water,” Abbott says.

Toilets can be particularly hazardous, the experts say. “Toddlers are top-heavy, and if they fall in they can’t get back out,” Abbott says.

To prevent children from being trapped underneath pool covers, they should be removed completely before the pool is used, Rothman says, and flotation aids should be nearby. Keep a phone by the pool as well, Abbott says.

Although it helps if someone in the family knows CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), the experts emphasize that prevention is always better.

The best way to child-proof a home, Rothman says, is to inspect it from a kid’s eye view. Get down on your hands and knees, she says, and “look for danger from the area that a child would see. Are there hanging cords a child could pull? Nails coming up from the floor?” This inspection can be done in about an hour, she says.

Plug all unused electrical outlets, Abbott says, and make sure there are latches on all the cupboards. Poisons should be kept in high cabinets, and those should be latched too. She recommends storing anything poisonous--even such innocuous-seeming items as laundry detergent--in cabinets so high that even the parents need a step stool to reach them.

“Poisoning is always the fault of a careless adult,” Rothman says. “Children can be poisoned not only by swallowing something, but also by smelling or touching a hazardous substance.”

About 75% of all poison accidents involve children under 5, Rothman says. She recommends that parents keep on hand both syrup of ipecac (which induces vomiting) and activated charcoal (which can neutralize some poisons). “But don’t give either of them unless you’re instructed to do so by Poison Control,” she says.

Child-proof caps or not, store all medicines in high, latched cabinets as well. It may seem easier to keep a sick child’s medicine near his bed, but don’t take the risk. Especially with cough syrup, Abbott says. “Kids seem to really like that.”

Take the same precautions with vitamins, the experts say. And never describe medicine as candy, says Rothman.

Plants in and around the home can also be poisonous. “To my amazement, children love to chew on them,” Rothman says. Because so many common plants can be toxic--azaleas, bird of paradise, creeping Charlie, geraniums and dieffenbachia, among others--the experts recommend preventing children from eating or chewing on any plant. If a child has eaten a plant, call Poison Control for advice just in case.

Be prepared for both fires and earthquakes. For fires, install a smoke detector on every level of the house. Have a fire extinguisher on hand, the Red Cross recommends, and keep long garden hoses attached to faucets in the front and back of the house. If yours is a multistory house, keep a ladder available, long enough to reach both second-floor windows and the roof. Make sure all windows can be opened in an emergency.

Plan both an escape route and a meeting place outside the house.

Keep extra nonperishable food and water on hand in case of earthquakes. “It sounds so silly, but that makes the event itself less traumatic,” Abbott says.

Other hazards to watch out for:

Glass doors: Children can easily forget they’re there and try to come straight through. Place colorful decals on the door, at child’s eye level, as a reminder.

Disposable lighters: Even empty, they can have one last spark to start a fire.

Pot handles: Keep them turned toward the center of the stove so that little hands can’t grab them from below.

Waste cans: Keep them securely closed so that children can’t get hazardous objects out of them.

Alcoholic beverages: Yes, even that six-pack of beer in the refrigerator. Keep them in a separate refrigerator in the garage if possible, Abbott says, so that children aren’t tempted to taste.

Cribs: Older cribs may have corner post extensions, and children have been strangled when their clothing became hooked on these small protrusions, Abbott says.

Toys: They are much safer now thanks to increased awareness of the hazards, but Abbott recommends that parents “remove loose parts before your child does, throw away fragments of broken toys, including crayons.”

Sewing basket: Keep it away from children.

Sharp objects: Set a good example. Don’t put pins, nails, toothpicks or clothespins in your mouth, and keep them out of reach of children.

Plastic foam cups: Keep them away from babies and small children.

Clutter: Keep stairs, hallways and doorways free of it.

Throw rugs: Eliminate them or attach them to floor.