The return of harsh winter conditions also has provided a tough reminder for homeowners and renters to redouble their fire safety and carbon monoxide precautions. It’s a must to triple-check alarms, indoor space heaters, and power generators, and ensure that everyone in the household knows about the deadly risks.
News organizations on the East Coast have reported how, during frigid conditions, fires killed 17 people in New York, and took a dozen lives in Philadelphia (photo above, from WPVI-TV video) Many of the victims were children, and authorities have called these incidents shocking because it has been long since so many lives were lost in structure fires.
The New York and Philadelphia incidents occurred in crowded units of older, federally developed apartments and public housing.
Officials blamed the Philadelphia fire on a 5-year-old boy playing with matches near a dry Christmas tree, while the Bronx blaze apparently started with electric space heaters that were left to run for days.
Investigators are examining likely smoke alarm failures in both lethal cases and an open fire-suppression door as well as lack of safe, required heating in the New York blaze.
In Maryland, officials have targeted a power generator as the likely source of carbon monoxide that fatally poisoned two in a Prince George’s County home and left a third person with life-threatening injuries.
Carbon monoxide is fatal when inhaled by humans. It’s an odorless gas produced by any combustion — like the flames on natural gas heaters, kerosene lamps, or the engines of gasoline-powered cars and generators. That’s why every home that is not all-electric needs to be checked for proper venting of water heaters and gas furnaces, and it’s also why manufacturers warn never to use things like charcoal grills indoors. Victims suffocate because the inhaled gas blocks red blood cells from their vital job of carrying oxygen around the body. It’s a painless but hideous and totally preventable way to die. Our law firm’s website has more information on carbon monoxide poisoning and legal liability.
On fires, just a reminder that the National Fire Protection Association reported:
“In 2020, local fire departments responded to an estimated 1.4 million fires in the United States. These fires caused 3,500 civilian fire deaths and 15,200 reported civilian fire injuries. Property damage was estimated at $21.9 billion. On average, a fire department responded to a fire somewhere in the U.S. every 23 seconds in 2020. A home structure fire was reported every 89 seconds, a home fire death occurred every three hours and 24 minutes, and a home fire injury occurred every 46 minutes.”
The nonprofit organization, separately, has found that:
“Heating equipment is a leading cause of fires in U.S. homes. Local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 48,530 fires involving heating equipment each year in 2014-2018. These fires resulted in annual losses of 500 civilian deaths, 1,350 civilian injuries, and $1.1 billion in direct property damage.”
The group also says that:
“Space heaters were most often responsible for the home heating equipment fires, accounting for more than two in five fires, as well as the vast majority of the deaths and injuries in home fires caused by heating equipment.”
As for portable electrical generators, ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative site, the Texas Tribune, and NBC News recently teamed up to report this:
“Portable generators can save lives after major storms by powering medical equipment, heaters, and refrigerators when the grid collapses. But desperate residents who rely on the machines to keep their families safe sometimes end up poisoning them instead. The devices can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars, according to federal figures. They kill an average of 70 people in the U.S. each year and injure thousands more, making them one of the most dangerous consumer products on the market. As climate change and the nation’s aging infrastructure combine to cause worsening storms and longer power outages, experts warn that more people are turning to portable generators every year — a trend that benefits manufacturers’ bottom line while putting more people at risk.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on consumers by defective and dangerous products. Too many people may get blasé about the vast array of material goods that surround us and whether regulators of various kinds have checked them out and ensured they won’t harm us.
They can and do. Consumers need to be hyper aware about how they respond to extreme weather related to the real threat of climate change. It doesn’t help that those in charge of properties ignore safety basics, including maintaining alarms and suppression tools like extinguishers and doors, as well as proper heating so people don’t use risky indoor warming devices. It’s a harsh commentary on the state of the nation’s infrastructure that electrical power has become iffy enough that generators have become a must-have for so many suburbanites.
Author Jessie Singer, in a Washington Post Op-Ed, also makes powerful points about how racial, social, and economic inequities may dull too many of us to the damages caused by what she argues are misnamed “accidents,” writing:
“No one in the wealthiest nation in the world should be dying in a fire in 2022. Fires are not quantum physics; we know what causes fires, how they spread and what makes any given fire more or less deadly. Seventeen people in the Bronx died in a fire for the same reason that most Americans die in a house fire in 2022: Because the only housing accessible to them is housing that is unsafe. Even following a thread as specific as space heaters proves this point: The use of supplemental heat mechanisms, such as space heaters, in New York City is directly correlated with neighborhood poverty.
“Proof that ‘accidents’ are far more insidious than simple, individual mistakes is evident when examining who suffers from them — especially when policy and infrastructure are major factors in survival. Indigenous people, for example, are more than twice as likely as white people to be killed by drivers while walking. In 2020 people in West Virginia, where poverty rates are high, died by accident at nearly twice the rate of people over the state line in Virginia, where poverty rates are much lower. In fact, across the board, states with the highest rates of accidental death are also some of the poorest.
“Like fires, accidental drownings, traffic accidents and gun accidents all occur disproportionately along racial lines. The same is true for accidental death by ‘unintentional natural and environmental causes”’ — a broad category that includes rat bites, starvation and freezing to death, among other horrors. (Freezing to death is, of course, a cause of death that could be prevented by a space heater.) These so-called ‘accidents,’ so often attributed to a personal failure, are inseparable from systemic inequity — racial, economic, and geographic.”
We have a lot of work to do to ensure the safety of our homes and our loved ones.