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HOW & WHY: HOT BATH WATER CAN INJURE LIKE LIQUID FIRE

You wouldn't think that you could get burned in the bathtub. But each year thousands of children do just that. Usually, the water in the tub is just too hot.

Hot water is like liquid fire, and when it touches the skin, it can cause a "scald" burn. The skin is injured in just a few seconds. In a bathtub, hot water can burn a large part of the body very fast. And the larger a burn is, the more dangerous it is to the body.When the skin is burned, the cells that form it are destroyed. Skin has several layers. A minor burn affects only the outer layers of the skin. But if a burn is severe, the tissue and bone underneath the skin can be injured, too.

Doctors rate how bad burns are by giving them numbers:

- A first-degree burn causes minor damage to skin. It makes the skin dry and sore.

- A second-degree burn makes the skin look moist, and blisters form on its surface. These burns take three to six weeks to heal, and scars may be left behind.

- A third-degree burn destroys all the layers of the skin. Unless the burn is very small - less than one centimeter square - doctors have to perform skin grafts. To do this, they take uninjured skin and move it over the burned place. Healing takes a long time, and scars will remain.

- A fourth-degree burn affects tissue and bone as well as skin. These burns often kill.

According to the national "Safe Kids" campaign, about 37,000 children under 14 are treated each year in emergency rooms for scald burns. Nearly half are children under 5. This year, the national safety group has made the prevention of burns its most important project.

Children get scalded from hot liquids or food, or from tap water in a sink or bathtub. A toddler might grab the cord of an electric coffee pot and pull it over onto himself. Kids also grab pots off stoves or try to carry a cooking pot that's too heavy. Pulling on tablecloths or place mats also can send hot soups or drinks flying.

Grown-ups get scald burns, too. But liquids that might not be hot enough to hurt an adult can hurt a child. That's because children's skin is thinner than adult skin. Kids' skin gets injured at lower temperatures, and the burns tend to be worse. In just three seconds, water at 140 degrees Fahrenheit can cause a third-degree burn that's bad enough to send a child to a hospital. The same water would take nearly twice as long to injure adult skin that badly.

Studies show that children who live in apartment buildings are more likely to get scalded by bath water than kids who live in houses. Those who live on the lower floors of the buildings are more at risk than those who live high up in the building. That's because the boilers that produce hot water for apartment buildings tend to get the water really hot. As the water rises through the pipes, it cools down. On the first or second floor, the water might be 160 degrees when it comes out of the tap. By the time it gets to the top floor, it has cooled down to 130. But even that is hotter than the 120 degrees the "Safe Kids" campaign recommends as safe.

Scald burns happen when an adult puts a child in a bath that's too hot or when an older child gives a younger child a bath. Kids also get burned when they fall into a full bathtub that a grown-up is about to use. Experts say that small children are at risk of getting scalded in the bathtub when they're left there alone. A small child who tries to add more hot water to the tub can receive a burn in just a second.

Parents and older brothers and sisters who give little kids baths can easily prevent scald burns. After you fill the tub, put your whole hand in the water and swish it quickly back and forth for a few seconds. If the water feels even a little bit hot to you, then it's too hot for a small child. Add more cold water and repeat the test using your other hand. If the water feels comfortable, it's safe to put the child in the tub. Use this method to test your own bath water, too.

When you put a child into the tub, make sure he or she is facing away from the taps. That way, the child won't be able to add more hot water when you're not looking. When the bath is done, your little brother or sister will be clean and safe.

C) 1990 Catherine O'Neill

Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate

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Tips for parents

B The national "Safe Kids" campaign says residents of low-income housing are at high risk for scald burns because of inadequate plumbing. The group is implementing a model program in Washington, D.C., to retrofit safety valves onto systems in the city's apartment buildings. The campaign is also working to get plumbing codes amended around the country to require installation of scald-prevention devices in new construction. For more information, write to National "Safe Kids" Campaign, 111 Michigan Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20010-2970.