Opening the Door to Microwave Safety

microwaveBy Matt Wood

Parents of young children know the drill for childproofing a home: covers on electrical outlets, gates at the top and bottom of stairs, cabinets and drawers locked, fragile knickknacks placed safely out of reach of little hands. But how many parents worry about toddlers using a microwave oven?

As you probably know from reheating leftovers or whipping up a batch of ramen noodles, microwaves can heat food to extremely high temperatures very quickly. It’s hard enough for adults to avoid singeing fingers while pulling a hot bowl of soup out of the microwave; imagine the danger posed to kids. A new study by researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Center found that children as young as 17 months old can turn on a microwave, open the door and remove items, putting them at significant risk for scald injuries.

Scalds are the leading cause of burn-related injury to children living in the United States. In 2009 an estimated 1,230 children younger than 5 years old were treated in emergency rooms for burns related to microwave ovens. Marla Robinson, assistant director of Inpatient Therapy Services at the Medical Center and lead author on the study, said that over the past four years the emergency department has treated an increasing number of young children for burns related to taking items out of a microwave. “These young children were getting very significant burns causing disfiguring scars and putting them at risk for contractures and deformity,” she said. “They can push the button and take something out, and it spills down their face, neck, chest and arms.”

Robinson and colleagues from the University of Chicago Burn Center, Children’s Memorial Hospital, Central DuPage Hospital and the University of Illinois at Chicago wanted to draw attention to the risk for these injuries and build a case for the need to redesign microwaves with more safety features for children. So they took a group of 40 kids ranging from 15 months to 5 years old and put them in a test kitchen with microwaves on a counter that they could reach. They asked the children to turn on a microwave, open the door on two different styles of ovens, with either a push button or handle, and remove a cup with a small amount of water (not one that was heated, of course).

What they found is enough to make any parent lock up the microwave in the highest cabinet, if not get rid of it altogether. By age 2 more than 80 percent of the children could turn on the microwave, open both types of doors and remove the cup. By age 4, all of them could, and even one 17-month-old could perform all the tasks. Robinson says the results weren’t surprising, because kids are naturally attracted to microwaves. “It makes noise. It beeps. It’s fun,” she said. “You push buttons, so it looks like a toy.”

She says the key to preventing scald injuries is educating parents about the risks. “A lot of times these injuries happen in the child’s home while under the supervision of their primary caregiver. The parents just weren’t in the room and the kids were imitating their behavior,” she said.

Children from lower-income homes where the microwave is the only cooking source or who may be under the care of older siblings for long periods of time are especially at risk. But as any parent knows, keeping an eye on little ones every second is nearly impossible. Kids are also remarkably ingenious at getting into the wrong places, so even putting the microwave out of reach isn’t a perfect solution.

Kyran Quinlan, MD, a former University of Chicago pediatrician now with Northwestern University who also worked on this study, has begun working with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to urge regulatory changes in the way microwaves are designed to prevent children from operating them. Locking mechanisms on doors and key codes that require two-handed operation could make microwaves safer. Until those safety features become standard, the only solution is awareness.

Robinson hopes this study can lead to guidelines like the CPSC issued for temperature settings on hot water heaters to prevent scalds. “We do get tap water scalds but not as much, with the overall decrease in those injuries nationwide, because those regulations have been put in place,” she said. “What we are seeing more now are these food-related injuries, and it’s amazing that it’s affecting these kids.”

Robinson MR, O’Connor A, Wallace L, Connell K, Tucker K, Strickland J, Taylor J, Quinlan KP, & Gottlieb LJ (2011). Behaviors of young children around microwave ovens. The Journal of trauma, 71 (5 Suppl 2) PMID: 22072042

About Matt Wood (531 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer and manager of communications at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Division.
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