25 Years and 125,000 Scalds

By Rand Ackroyd

While many advancements in preventing scald burns have been made over the past 25 years, the plumbing community still has a way to go.

Baby's hand in water.It was over 25 years ago when the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission reported, "...children under five years old account for almost 30% of the 100,000 annual bathtub- and shower-related accidents and burns from scalding, resulting in over 70 deaths each year." The report's recommendation was, "Turn down the temperature on the control water heater to 120 degrees F." Another report was issued in 1979 by the U.S.C.P.S.C. that stated, "An estimated 2,600 scald injuries per year are caused by excessive hot water..." and "...water scald injuries are severe and sometimes fatal." With the warning issued twenty-five years ago, you would think that we should be in good shape with reduced incidents of hot tap water scaldings. The most recent report from the National Safe Kids Campaign stated that 23,620 cases of water scalds were treated in hospitals, with one-fourth of the burns from hot tap water, and previous reports from the NSKC stated the average bathtub scald burn covers 12% of the body with a full thickness third-degree burn. And, some 4,000-5,000 tap water scalds per year are still occurring!

The plumbing community can be proud of the great advancements it has made over the past 25 years in consumer safety and protection, through new products, product standards, plumbing codes and enforcement. However, the facts are clear that the plumbing industry has yet to see its proudest moments relating to tap water scald protection.

Why Not 120 degrees F Water?

The problem today is the same as was reported over 25 years ago--hot water in excess of 120 degrees F. You might ask why we haven't followed this 25-year-old recommendation and adjusted the hot water source to 120 degrees F. There are two reasons why this hasn't happened, and why it probably will not.

The first reason is that no one wants to run out of hot water in the shower. Homeowners expect their hot water will be available whenever and for as long as they need it. Running out of hot water is simply unacceptable in most homes. The problem stems from the fact that most common sources of residential hot water heaters are the 40- to 60-gallon type. With this amount of stored hot water, coupled with the normal peak hot water usage, most water heaters are set between 140 degrees F and 160 degrees F.

The second reason that has come to light in the past few years is Legionnaires' Disease. A 1996 report titled, "Risk Factors for Domestic Acquisition of Legionnaires Disease," concluded from case studies in 15 hospitals that "a portion of sporadic cases of Legionnaires' Disease may be residentially acquired and are associated with domestic potable water." This study agreed with previous reports that found 6% of the homes studied had Legionella pneumophilla. The Legionella exist in the biofilm on the inside of pipes. A report issued in June of 2000 by the State of Marylandsupports this position and investigated the presence of Legionella in the hot water distribution systems in hospitals and institutions. The report hypothesized that the source of Legionella was the public/municipal water system. Legionella grows rapidly between 77 degrees F and 108 degrees F. The solution for preventing the Legionella is heating the water to 140 degrees F.

Water temperature of 140 degrees F kills Legionella almost immediately. Therefore, due to our water use patterns and concerns about Legionella, we are left with stored hot water in the scald temperature range.

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