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  • Jaime Williams

4 hidden hazards in your home

The recall of more than 29 million IKEA chests and dressers that have been blamed for the deaths of three children are a stark reminder of the hidden hazards in your home. While many people are familiar with the usual suspects — lead paint (common in homes built before 1978) asbestos, mold, radon, and PCBs — they may not be aware of others.

Here are four hazards hidden that may be in your home:

The wrong smoke detectors

Most houses have smoke detectors installed (at least 96%, or 111 million, homes in the U.S. have at least one, according to the U.S. Fire Administration), but many of them could be the incorrect type — and potentially deadly.

There are two major kinds, ionization and photoelectric. Ionization are the most common, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that of all the smoke detectors in the U.S., 90%, or 100 million, were ionization. But ionization alarms, which use a small bit of radioactive material to trip the alarm when it detects small burning particles, have been shown to be less able to detect slow-burning or smoldering fires, such as those caused by the most common types of ignition sources, namely cigarettes, frayed wires from electrical appliances, and sparks from a still-smoldering fireplace.

According to Joseph Fleming, a deputy fire chief at the Boston Fire Department and fire safety consultant, as many as 30,000 people in the U.S. have died since 1990 because they relied on ionization detectors. That’s because an ionization alarm can sometimes take between 20 and even 50 minutes longer to activate than a photoelectric smoke alarm.

“My analysis of fire fatalities in Massachusetts indicates that about half of the deaths with operating alarms are due to the slow response of ionizations alarms to smoldering fires. Switching to photoelectric alarms should reduce fire deaths by about 35%,” Fleming writes in an emailed response to questions.

So why do ionization alarms get placed in homes?

Answer: They’re cheaper — typically half the price of a photoelectric smoke detector — and the battery on an ionization alarm tends to last longer, according to the NFPA. Moreover, fire damage and injury from kitchen and fast flaming fires is the highest, though smoldering fires have some of the lowest numbers of injuries, but the highest rate of death as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, says Fleming.

Moreover, because ionization alarms have such a high false alarm rate — they can be triggered by normal activities such as cooking or even showering — many people disconnect or “shush” their ionization alarms. Photoelectric alarms, which use a beam of light to sniff out larger burning particles, have fewer false alarms.

Firefighters like Fleming say that by the time an ionization alarm activates, smoke and carbon monoxide levels are likely to have built up sufficiently to disorient you and make you unable to exit your home.

So what’s the best way to protect your family — besides not smoking and otherwise fireproofing your home and holding regular exit drills?

Invest in photoelectric alarms in bedrooms and hallways, and leave the ionization alarms in the kitchen, if at all. (In 2008, the International Association of Fire Fighters recommended that photoelectric alarms be installed only and several states such as Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine and cities like Albany, Calif., have required photoelectric alarms in new residential construction.)

In addition, make sure they are properly placed high on walls or ceilings, and are hard-wired (preferably by a licensed electrician) which means they don’t rely on battery power (61% of homes in the 2011 American Housing Survey had battery-only power) and are interconnected so if one sounds they all sound. (Just 25% of homes have interconnected smoke alarms, according to a 2010 NFPA survey, even though since 1976 new manufactured homes have been required to have them.)

Hidden or unsafe gas lines

If your house was built between 1860 and 1915 (about 6% of single-family homes, according to Realty Trac), you may have gas lines that used to supply natural gas for lighting. Some lines have been capped off, and others have been converted to electric, but some are still active, and potentially dangerous. An active gas line in one home was actually used as a towel rack.

Peter Green, a now-retired San Francisco firefighter, recalls what happened once when nearby workers drilled through a wall at a Victorian-era mansion in the city, rupturing hidden cast-iron pipes that weren’t plugged off and still contained gas. “We were parked outside across the street, we heard a rush of gas, the workers came running out and then “boom,” he recalls.

In addition, in 2007 a class-action lawsuit was settled with the makers of several gas lines in homes that were found to be insufficiently resistant to lightning strikes. More than 2 million homes in the U.S. have a type of gas piping known as corrugated stainless steel tubing, or CSST, which is thinner, more flexible and cheaper, but it is also more susceptible to damage as a result of lightning strikes.

A lightning bolt can burn holes in the tubing and cause a fire, or even a catastrophic explosion, and it doesn’t even have to be a direct strike, says Mitchell Guthrie, an engineering and lightning protection consultant in Blanch, N.C., who worked on the National Fire Protection Association’s investigation of the CSST issue. “There are a lot of homeowners that have it and don’t know it,” said Guthrie, who added that many fire inspectors aren’t aware of the issue and may miss the CSST issue during an investigation of a fire as a result of lightning. “It’s very under-reported,” he said.

The class-action settlement against the four companies Titeflex Corp., (a unit of Smiths Group PLC) Ward Manufacturing Inc., OmegaFlex Inc., and Parker Hannifin Corp. PH, +1.62% only made available vouchers to consumers in amounts ranging from $75 to $2,000 for lightning protection systems (LPS) or grounding and bonding of the homes. The amount varied depending on where the home was located and the frequency of lightning strikes. Moreover, the deadline for homeowners to file claims closed later that year in September 2007, leaving potentially millions of homes unprotected.

“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough publicity given to the lightning hazard associated with CSST and the deadline has now passed for property owners to take advantage of the vouchers,” Bud VanSickle, executive director of the Lightning Protection Institute, a not-for-profit safety consortium in Maryville, Mo., warns. “Even though the class action deadline has closed, there are still millions of property owners out there with a serious fire risk that needs to be addressed,” he says. He also warns that short of removing the entire CSST systems in homes, which can be anywhere in the property because of their flexibility, even adding an lightning protection system may not remove the risk completely. “There are still many unknowns,” he said. VanSickle said he also wants independent CSST testing that isn’t funded by manufacturers.

Lightweight wood truss construction

Lightweight construction has helped bring down the cost of many entry-level homes, but several components are known to perform poorly under fire conditions, and the most infamous is the lightweight wood truss. On a lightweight wood truss, there are no nails, screws or bolts; instead, trusses are joined with metal gusset plates that are pressed into the wood on either side of the truss by machine or even just glued on.

About 60% of construction in the U.S. uses some form of wood truss, according to the Madison, Wis.-based Wood Truss Council of America. The truss is lightweight and strong — until a fire strikes, at which time heat can pop the gussets off, collapsing the truss often without warning. In January of 2013, firefighters of the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department in New York fighting a fire in the basement of a home were forced to evacuate within minutes when the first floor began to separate from the walls. Within 45 seconds of the last firefighter evacuating the house, the first floor collapsed into the basement.

The National Fire Protection Association said that between 2000 and 2009 nine firefighters died because of truss collapses.

As a result of the close call for firefighters in New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law in October 2014 that requires a truss notification system on all new construction homes in the state. “The use of pre-engineered wood and lightweight truss construction has become a common and accepted construction technique. It’s not going away, so it only makes sense that building codes reflect this reality,” Mineola Mayor Scott Strauss said shortly before Cuomo’s signing.

Still, the construction industry has fought firefighters on creating a national system of truss identification, since the trusses aren’t visible from the exterior. As a result, most fire departments won’t risk a dangerous interior attack on a house with trusses unless a life is in jeopardy, meaning that your home is likely to sustain more damage as firefighters attempt to put the fire out from the exterior, which often requires more water (and often results in more water damage).

Nearly all residential building codes now require that when gusseted trusses are used, they must be protected by a residential sprinkler system, which protects the truss but adds to the cost and complexity of the house and leaves it prone to flooding and accidental water flow from a sprinkler head.

Drawers, stoves and TV’s that tip over

Children love to climb on furniture and explore, but it can sometimes have injurious and even deadly consequences.

This week, IKEA agreed to recall 29 million chests and dressers in the U.S. following a raft of injuries and three deaths caused by them tipping over, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

According to the CPSC, there were 41 tip-over incidents involving IKEA’s Malm chests and dressers, none of which were anchored to a wall. In February 2014, a 2-year-old boy from West Chester, Pa., died when a six-drawer dresser fell over and pinned him against a bed, while four months later a 23-month-old boy from Snohomish, Wash., died after being trapped under a three-drawer Malm dresser.

The CPSC and IKEA in July 2015 announced a repair program for the chests and dressers at risk of falling over, including a wall-anchoring kit. But more incidents have been reported since, including in February of this year the death of a 22-month-old boy from Apple Valley, Minn.

And it’s not just furniture. Since the 1980s, lightweight steel stoves have become the norm, replacing heavy, cast iron stoves in all except the most expensive homes. The lightweight stoves are easy for contractors to install — and for homeowners to replace when remodeling — but they are hazards for small children, says Mike Tebeau, a home inspector in Frederick, Md. “A child can open the oven door all the way down and by putting their weight on it sometimes tip the stove over,” he says. Even a heavy pot of water can tip the stove over, he adds.

In 2008, Sears SHLD, +2.85% agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement as a result of more than 100 deaths and injuries, many from scalds and burns to children, which were blamed on inadequate mounting mechanisms on more than 4 million stoves it sold between 2000 and 2007.

Still, as many as 20 million homes may still have a range that can tip over and injure children, which is why Tebeau and other inspectors make checking the stove for anti-tip brackets a part of their home inspection process.

Tebeau also warns that older flat-screen TV sets can weigh up to 100 pounds, yet still be easy to tip over and fall on children, who can pull on cables or power cords. Close to 13,000 injuries to children were reported in 2011 from falling flat-screen TVs, according to a 2012 study from SafeKids Worldwide.

And nearly 170 children died between 2000 and 2010 from TVs tipping over, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Kate Carr, of SafeKids, recommends that flat-screen TVs be mounted on walls so they can’t get pulled down, while older cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions should be placed on low pieces of furniture, and never on tall dressers.

“A 36-inch CRT falling three feet (onto a child) has the same momentum as that child falling 10 stories,” Carr said. Still, only one in four TVs are mounted on walls, Carr says, because many parents fear the TV falling off the wall, or causing damage to the wall.


(This story has been updated with reporting by Saabira Chaudhuri of The Wall Street Journal and Sara Sjolin of MarketWatch)


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