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6 Holiday Safety Hazards

Christmas Trees
holiday decor

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an average of 240 home fires begin with Christmas trees every year. "If there is a fire, the Christmas tree often is the first thing to ignite -- especially if it's dried out," says Deborah Hanson, director of external affairs for First Alert. These fires result in deaths, injuries, and roughly $17 million in property damage. When choosing a real tree, opt for one that is green (no brown needles!). If you're going with an artificial tree, be sure to choose one that is fire-resistant (look for a label), and remember that trees with built-in electrical systems should also have the label of an independent test laboratory that is approved to perform safety testing, such as the Underwriters Laboratories. "Whether it's a real or artificial tree, place it in a sturdy stand so that it's not in danger of falling over on children," Hanson advises. For a real tree, cut off about 2 inches of the trunk and then put the tree in a sturdy water-holding stand; anchoring it will prevent children or pets from knocking it over. Keep the stand filled with water, and check often to make sure the tree is "drinking" the water. If the water level doesn't go down over a day, check for any problems. "Keep the tree out of the way of traffic, doorways, and exits, and away from heating sources and candles," Hanson says.

"Parents should also avoid putting sharp, easily breakable decorations anywhere on the tree," says Debra Holtzman, child-safety expert and author of The Safe Baby: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Home Safety and Healthy Living. "They should also refrain from using trimmings that have small removable parts or that resemble candy or food. And be careful with icicles and tinsel. If the baby gets hold of these items, she may put them in her mouth." Some decorations might contain lead, cadmium, or other toxic materials that can be harmful to young children, so keep all holiday d?cor out of reach. When the holidays are over, discard the real tree when it begins dropping needles. Dried-out trees are a fire danger and should not be left in the home or garage or even placed outside against the home. Check with your local community to find a recycling program.

Holiday Lights and Candles

Every year, more than 50,000 home fires are started by electrical problems, according to the NFPA. So when it comes to hanging lights, follow the directions on the box closely. Follow the obvious: Only use indoor lights indoors (and use only outdoor lights outdoors), and verify that the lights have been tested and approved by an independent safety-testing laboratory.

"If you live in an older house, it might be a good idea to get a professional checkup from an electrician before loading up outlets," Hanson says. "And be especially careful when using older lights." Check lights for broken, cracked, or bare wires, or loose bulb connections, and immediately replace any damaged light sets. Connect no more than three stands of mini light sets and a maximum of 50 bulbs for screw-in bulbs. Read the manufacturer's instructions for the number of LED strands to connect. Use no more than three light sets on one extension cord. Place extension cords against the wall so people and pets won't trip over them, but do not run cords under rugs. And make sure you turn off all the lights on trees and all decoration lights when you go to bed or leave the house. When you drive up to a lit house at night, it looks festive, but you don't want to risk starting a fire when no one is home.

Also, be sure to keep a watchful eye on candles; keep them away from the tree, decorations, and other things that can burn. The U.S. Fire Administration states that candles cause more than 10 deaths, 175 injuries, and $20 million in property damage each holiday season. "Never leave burning candles unattended, and place them away from the reach of children," Hanson warns. "Place them in stable holders, and make it a part of your routine to check that all candles are extinguished before you go to bed." Consider using electric or battery-powered candles instead.

Holiday Cooking

Food plays a major part in holiday celebrations, so it's not surprising that unattended cooking is the leading cause of home cooking fires in the United States, according to the NFPA. Stay in the kitchen while you're frying, grilling, or broiling food. If you must leave the kitchen for even a short period of time, turn off the stove. Keep anything that can catch fire (oven mitts, wooden utensils, paper or plastic bags, towels, etc.) away from your stovetop, including your apron or any long-sleeved shirt. Utilize the back burners of your stove as much as possible so that no spills will fall directly on you or anyone near you. When it comes to keeping little ones protected from burns, keep them out of the kitchen while you're cooking. Create a 3-foot kid-free zone around the stove, or put up a safety gate. If your kids are old enough, give them kitchen chores that won't require them to be near the stove or oven, such as mixing ingredients, setting the table, or arranging veggies on a tray.

The Fireplace

Have a professional chimney sweep inspect and clean the fireplace and chimney annually -- maintenance is crucial to prevent creosote buildups and potential fires. "After it has been inspected, parents can enjoy their fireplace so long as it has a sturdy metal fireplace screen in front of any open flame," Holtzman says. "Consider putting a safety gate in the doorway to the room with a fireplace or installing a hearth gate around the area."

Make sure there are no greens, paper, or other d?cor near or inside the fireplace, and always make sure that the flue is open. Be careful with fire salts: The colored flames they produce are pretty, but the salts contain heavy metals that cause intense gastrointestinal irritation when ingested, so keep them out of the reach of children. Of course, never leave your fire unattended, especially with kids in the same room. Extinguish the fire fully before leaving the house or going to bed, and allow ashes to cool before removing them. Dispose ashes in a tightly covered metal container, and place it outdoors, at least 10 feet from the home and any other nearby buildings.

Holiday Flowers and Plants

It's a popular misconception that poinsettias are poisonous, but they're not as toxic as people once believed. "It is unlikely that ingestion would cause death, although it may cause some gastric irritation and burning in the mouth," Holtzman notes. Some other beautiful holiday plants that decorate our homes are potentially poisonous, however. These include mistletoe, holly, Christmas rose, and Jerusalem cherry. Still, one can never been too careful when displaying flowers and plants. "Keep them safely out of reach of young children and pets, or avoid using them altogether," Holtzman says.

Holiday Wrapping and Cards

Most wrapping paper and ribbons are nontoxic, but certain foils and colored gift wraps might contain lead, so it's best not to let babies chew on them. "After opening presents, immediately discard gift wrap, plastic bags, foil papers, tape, gift bags, and ribbons, as they can all pose strangulation, suffocation, and choking hazards for young children or cause a fire if near a flame," Holtzman says. Another danger you might not think about are musical holiday cards, which contain button batteries (also found in some toys, remote controls, flameless candles, and other gadgets). "When swallowed, these coin-size lithium batteries can get stuck in the esophagus," Holtzman explains. "The saliva triggers an electric current that causes a chemical reaction that can severely burn the esophagus in as little as two hours. The button batteries in musical greeting cards are not secured in a locked compartment, and a young child can easily pull them out and ingest them." If your child does ingest one, call 911 and take him to the emergency room immediately.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.