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Many Water Heaters Set Too High, Upping Burn Risk

Burns are nasty injuries — they're painful and, if you're not careful, they can quickly get infected. Two children die from burn injuries every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A surprising number of these deaths originate with tap water that is way too hot.

The problem, a new study suggests, is that many water heaters are set dangerously high.

Wendy Shields is a scientist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who studies home injury risks. Shields wanted to look at home water heaters because she says she couldn't understand why tap water burns are still common, causing an estimated 1,500 hospital admissions and 100 deaths per year.

You see, back in 1988, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended that water heater manufacturers preset the maximum temperature at 120 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent burns. And the manufacturers voluntarily followed those recommendations — supposedly.

But a lot of people have continued to be scalded by water coming from the shower or tap. "We expected to see a drop off in burns after the old heaters were phased out," Shields tells Shots, "but that hasn't happened."

So Shields and her colleagues surveyed nearly 1,000 homes in Baltimore to find out whether water heaters were actually set at 120 degrees. They found that the heater setting was unsafely high in 41 percent of the homes, including 27 percent with temperatures at or above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This is really dangerous for an older person or a young child," Shields says.

Young children are especially at risk for scald burns because their skin is thinner; the elderly are also at a higher risk because they can be less sensitive to temperature, so may be slower to move away from the scalding water.

The problem in many homes, Shields says, is that most water heaters don't even have a thermostat that adjusts to a specific temperature.

So, to avoid tap water burns, Shields recommends testing your water heater by letting the hot water run from the tap for three minutes, then checking the water temperature with a candy thermometer. "If it's too hot, lower the gauge on the heater," she says. "Then test it a second time to make sure you've really gotten it down to 120 degrees."

The study appears in the March issue of the Journal of Burn Care & Research.

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