It’s often said that advocacy on child health issues is a marathon not a sprint. Kyran P. Quinlan, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, can attest to that.
In an article recently published in Pediatrics, Dr. Quinlan details his 15-year odyssey to protect children from severe scalds caused by foods and beverages heated in microwave ovens.
Like a marathoner, he learned that reaching the finish line requires a slow, steady pace, support from others and above all persistence. When he hit the proverbial wall, he and his team regrouped and eventually crossed the finish line.
Thanks to their efforts, all new microwave ovens sold in the United States will be required to have child-resistant doors beginning in 2023.
“Just as the ‘push and turn’ of a pill bottle has protected young children from poisonings, child-resistant microwave doors will protect young children from painful, disfiguring and sometimes life-changing scald burns,” Dr. Quinlan said.
Long, winding road
Dr. Quinlan’s journey began in 2005 when he and colleagues at the University of Chicago began discussing severe burn injuries in young children who had taken food such as hot soup from microwaves and spilled it on their face, chest and abdomen.
Preventing these injuries sounded straightforward: Convince microwave manufacturers to redesign the oven doors so they would be harder for young children to open.
Dr. Quinlan and his colleagues began by documenting the problem. In 2008, they published an analysis of data from the University of Chicago burn unit showing that 9% of pediatric burns not related to tap water involved microwaves. They published another study that revealed children as young as 17 months could open microwaves and remove the contents.
Then, they researched how microwaves are regulated and learned that Underwriters Laboratories (UL) administers the process to write and maintain standards for microwave design and safety. In 2013, they submitted a proposal to change the national standard so that microwave users would need to take two actions at the same time to open the door.
The response from microwave makers what not what they anticipated.
“Pediatricians who work in burn units and emergency departments have seen young children severely burned when they removed something scalding hot from a microwave,” Dr. Quinlan said. “But microwave makers told us that they never heard a complaint from families about this, and families never reported this to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).”
Ultimately, the proposal failed.
So Dr. Quinlan and the team went back to the drawing board. They worked with the safety advocacy group Kids in Danger, which enlisted University of Michigan engineering students to design a child-resistant door. They also found a family of a young child who had been burned to share their story in a short video. And in 2016, they published a study that showed an estimated 7,274 children under 5 years were treated in U.S. emergency departments from 2002-’12 after opening a microwave and being burned by heated items.
In 2017, UL set up a task force to study changing the standard, and Dr. Quinlan’s group shared the family’s video. He and another team member also became voting members of the task force, which included microwave manufacturers and representatives from UL and CPSC. In 2018, another proposal to redesign microwave doors was introduced — and it passed by one vote.
Dr. Quinlan said he and his team learned lessons that might benefit others advocating for child health and safety:
- Start with a good idea. “We knew that making microwave doors harder to open really would protect younger children,” he said in a video accompanying the article in Pediatrics.
- Build a team. Their team included medical professionals from Rush University Medical Center and the University of Chicago, representatives from CPSC and UL, microwave manufacturers and others.
- Put a face to data. “Having the microwave makers see a child who had been directly, personally impacted by this happening and realizing … that they could actually prevent this type of thing from happening, our statistics all of a sudden became very human. And I think it changed their hearts,” he said in an AAP podcast (https://bit.ly/2PEYSWd).
- Be persistent. “This took longer than expected,” Dr. Quinlan said in the video, “but it was so worth it.”
“When we first discussed this specific mechanism of severe scald burns to young children in the burn unit and how they might be prevented, we never imagined it would take 15 years to achieve a solution,” Dr. Quinlan and co-authors wrote in the Pediatrics article. “Many times, we were faced with challenges and hurdles… After each of these challenges, we had to find a way forward.”