Image: Grill fire
Knox County, Tenn., Fire Prevent
Grill fires can ignite in an instant, fire experts say.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/2/2010 4:48:08 PM ET 2010-07-02T20:48:08

A Tuesday night hotdog barbecue nearly turned to tragedy last month, when Julie Hill looked outside and saw 5-foot flames spewing from her family’s gas grill.

“The whole thing was engulfed in flames on the outside,” recalled Hill, 33, of Broadview Heights, Ohio. “The knobs melted off, the shelf melted off.”

A friend emptied a kitchen fire extinguisher on the blaze, but the flames still flared. With her kids, ages 2 and 5, safely shooed away, Hill called 911 and, on the dispatcher’s advice, waited until the fire died back and then reached in to shut off the propane.

“I’m so glad that no one got hurt and that we caught it before the tank blew up,” said Hill, who thinks that the fire was sparked by a loose or melted propane hose. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Indeed, it could have. As the Fourth of July holiday shifts barbecue season into high gear, doctors and fire officials warn that grilling accidents can have serious, even deadly, consequences.

The Hill family of Broadview Heights, Ohio, got a good scare last month during when their outdoor grill caught on fire. From left, Brian, Justin, Sophia and Julie Hill.

Last year, nearly 18,000 people were sent to U.S. emergency rooms because of grilling-related accidents, according to estimates from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. At least six people died, all from serious burns sustained when they squirted too much or the wrong kind of fuel on grill fires, or when their clothes were torched by barbecue flames.

Faulty grills — and grill users
Emergency doctors nationwide are familiar with grilling harm. They say would-be barbecuers are routinely burned, singed and blistered in accidents caused either by faulty grills — or the faulty habits of their operators.

“I had a patient that turned on the gas and the electric starter didn’t work, so they got a match,” said Dr. Ryan Stanton, a Kentucky doctor who is a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “By that time, a cloud of gas built up and it ignited with the match, causing second-degree burns and singeing off most of his hair.”

Another of Stanton’s patients was grilling topless and suffered severe burns to her face, neck and chest when grease from grilling food spattered her torso. “Good learning point here,” Stanton said.

Dozens of grillers wound up with blistered feet and toes when they stepped on firepit charcoals that were still hot. Others were burned when unsteady grills collapsed, spewing hot coals onto their legs or tossing sizzling food into their laps.

No question, there’s a huge potential for grilling injuries, largely because so many people grill. Gas grills are most popular, with about 8.5 million shipped in North America last year, compared with about 6.1 million charcoal grills, but both types pose danger when it comes to igniting them.

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Roughly a third of gas grill injuries come from burns incurred while lighting the grill, an estimate evident in the shocked comments of CPSC reports. It usually goes like this: A griller lights the gas, thinks everything is fine — and then looks up to find an inferno.

A 42-year-old woman in Kingwood, Texas, reported she left her grill for “two minutes” last June.

“When she returned, the whole grill was engulfed in flames … with exploding white fire balls of magnesium!” the report noted. “She burned her legs from the fireballs shooting out the grill.”

Some of problems lie with the grills themselves. Since 2005, the CPSC has issued 24 grill recalls for factors from faulty burners and missing hoses to incorrect heat shields. Last year, CPSC recalled about 663,000 grills sold at Lowe’s stores because of bad burners.

Other problems may be caused because consumers neglect basic maintenance, leaving grills greasy or forgetting to make sure that hoses that connect the propane tank are in good shape and attached securely.

Beware the dangers of lighter fluid
With charcoal grills, gasoline or lighter fluid is a factor in about a quarter of burn injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That usually happens when would-be grillers get impatient with charcoal that seems to be taking too long to light and decide to add fuel to the flames.

Dr. Comilla Sasson, an emergency room physician and assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Denver, has never forgotten the man in his mid-30s who was rushed to an Atlanta trauma center five years ago. He wanted to grill steaks, recalled Sasson.

“He had been using a charcoal grill that just wasn’t getting hot. So he decided to pour lighter fluid on the coals to get them to go,” she said. “Needless to say, the coals were indeed already lit, and the man came in with head-to-toe third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body and he did not live.”

Similarly, a 19-year-old man in Georgiana, Ala., died last year after spraying a combination of diesel fuel and gasoline on a barbecue grill he was attempting to light, according to the CPSC reports. His father and his brother also were injured in the fire.

It only takes one grill scare to reinforce the need for safety, said Julie Hill. She and her husband, Brian, 37, a school psychologist, are replacing the burned-up gas grill with a new one this week — just in time for the Fourth of July.

“We’ll really make sure that every time you light the grill you brush it off and get rid of the junk so nothing catches fire,” Julie Hill says. “We’re very thankful it wasn’t worse.”

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