Doctors and victims’ families are sounding the alarm over the dangers of table-top ethanol burners and calling for a ban on the popular outdoor products until regulatory safety measures are in place.
Two weeks ago, the Ontario Fire Marshall issued a warning about the products due to multiple fatalities and injuries in Ontario over the past three years from “flame-jetting”, a large burst of fire that shoots out like a blow torch. This occurs when the flame is not fully extinguished but is not obviously visible, and fuel vapours suddenly ignite during refuelling.
Cindy Iannucci is in a medically induced coma at a Toronto hospital after being hit by a jet of fire from a table-top ethanol device at a backyard party in August. Another woman sitting nearby was also hit by the hot flames and is now in hospital.
Iannucci has had surgeries to remove burned tissue multiple times, her sister Sharon Acorn said. “The first night we weren’t sure she was going to survive.”
Doctors tell Iannucci’s husband and her sister that she will never be the same person as before, physically and psychologically.
“There’s no words,” said husband Mike Iannucci.
Over the last two years, the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook has seen a notable increase in the number of patients admitted for ethanol burns, according to the centre’s director, Dr. Marc Jeschke, who calls the trend very worrisome.
“It’s a devastating injury,” Jeschke said. “They are usually very severely burned. It appears that this heat conduction is quite profound. So it’s massive heat in a very short period of time, so the burn depths are very deep.”
The flames often hits the upper body due to the individual’s sitting position around the table by the burner, he said, adding that they have lost patients despite smaller burn areas because of the severity and depth of the wound.
“This year is particularly bad,” he said.
In some cases, victims also suffer from inhalation injury, due to the instinctive intake of breath when startled or shocked.
“Some of them have profound inhalation injury, some of them do not. But uniformly...their burns are very, very deep. We classify them as full thickness, very deep burns,” said Jeschke.
Toronto pediatrician Michelle McLauchlin, is one of two victims killed by the ethanol products in Ontario this year alone. McLauchlin died in June from catastrophic burns on over 90 per cent of her body, in her throat, and lungs.
“I think about that night and I still can’t believe it,” said McLauchlin’s fiance, Rui Raposo.
The family of Judith Buys, a Peterborough dentist who died in 2016 from a similar ethanol fire, has filed a $12 million negligence lawsuit against the manufacturer of the product that killed her, and Iannucci’s family has also retained the same personal injury law firm, McLeish Orlando, and is also considering legal action.
Buys, who was visiting a neighbour’s cottage at the time, died less than three days after suffering massive burns to most of her body. Her husband, Dr. James McGorman, has since been advocating for improved safety of ethanol fueled lamp products and started a grassroots website at www.notyourturntoburn.com.
All three victims’ families question why these table-top mini-fireplaces are still available in stores given how deadly they can be.
“I absolutely believe there should be a ban, wholeheartedly. This shouldn’t even be a consideration. I believe the government really should get involved,” said Raposo.
Sunnybrook’s Jeschke says these injuries are not caused by negligence or alcohol impairment, for example, and that a ban on the products should be seriously considered.
Australia issued a national ban on table-top ethanol burners that do not meet specific weight, size, and stability requirements in 2017 following more than 100 injuries, and three dozen house fires since 2010.
In the U.S., injuries from the firepots decreased sharply following a recall in 2011, according to a December 2016 memo from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. At the time, the agency said it was aware of 115 incidents that resulted in 126 injuries and three deaths, but found that the majority of the incidents took place in 2010 and 2011.
Health Canada said it has been collaborating with the U.S. agency and other stakeholders to develop safety standards regarding flame-jetting. A safety standard for firepots was published earlier this year, while another one is currently being developed.
Until the safety standards are imposed on the products, firefighters and doctors emphasize the importance of not pouring fuel over a flame, and not refuelling until the burner is completely cool. Make sure the portable products are on a stable and level surface, and to keep pourable fuels away from flames or anything else that can create a spark. Installing a flame-arrestor, or a flame mitigating device, to the fire devices can also help prevent serious burns and injuries.