A shocking flame jetting accident where a one-year-old baby girl and her 20-year-old aunt were badly burned in Toronto may have prompted Health Canada to issue its new warning to Canadian consumers about tabletop firepot devices that are fuelled with ethanol.
The baby and her aunt received second-degree burns in September after the baby’s grandfather tried to refuel a tabletop fireplace in the family’s backyard, unaware that the device was still burning.
This week, Health Canada alerted consumers, retailers and manufacturers that certain types of firepots and portable fireplaces are now prohibited; they pose a danger to human health and safety.
So far, the government has not specified which brands or models are dangerous.
Firepots, also referred to in the marketplace as firebowls, portable fireplaces, tabletop fire pits and patio burners, have become popular across Canada in recent years. They’re sold in multiple retail outlets as decorative items, and are often seen on tables in backyards, or in restaurants.
Ethanol burns with a clear flame and can be difficult to see when fuel has been consumed and the flame is low.
“It shot two litres of liquid fire off to the left of them, and started my deck on fire,” said the Toronto grandfather. He explained the family is so traumatized by the accident that they aren’t ready to publicly share their experience. The 20-year-old is just out of hospital after a two week stay involving skin-grafting surgery.
“The baby is in better condition,” said the still-shaken 60-year-old grandfather, who threw the bottle away from his family members when he saw the fireball. “We’re hoping eventually she may not even have any noticeable scars.”
Health Canada said it has received reports of 12 flame-jetting incidents resulting in two deaths and 26 burn injuries to users and bystanders.
Medically induced coma
In June, Toronto doctor Michelle McLauchlin died after a refueling incident that left her with burns to 95 per cent of her body.
In August, two women in their 50s were attending a backyard party in Toronto with friends, when a bottle of ethanol ignited. Both had to be put into medically-induced comas as part of their treatment and remain in Sunnybrook Hospital’s burn centre with devastating injuries.
In September, the Fire Marshal of Ontario issued a warning and produced an educational video to explain how flame-jetting happens. The video shows people enjoying a backyard party, with a ceramic fire pot sitting on a table at the centre of the festivities.
“As the evening wears on, the liquid fuel is consumed,” said the narration, “The people around, believing that the flame has gone fully out, reach for the fuel container and proceed to fill the ornament.”
But if the device is still alight, the almost invisible, clear flame can travel up the stream of liquid fuel and enter the fuel container. “The sudden pressure from the rapid expansion displaces burning liquid with force,” explains the narrator.
People who’ve witnessed flame-jetting describe it as being similar to a blowtorch.
‘Like a flamethrower’
“It spews out like a flamethrower,” said Jim McGorman of Peterborough, Ont. His wife Judith died three summers ago after an similar accident at a neighbour’s cottage. “There were actually five people burnt on that night, not just my wife.”
But Judith, a 55-year-old dentist and mother to their two sons, was sitting directly across from the host who refilled the tabletop firepot, and received the brunt of the blast. She was so badly burned she developed an infection and died in hospital three days later.
“After I got over the initial shock and dealt with all the things you have to deal with after a death in the family, I became angry,” said McGorman, an emergency room doctor himself. “Especially when I learned that this is not new, this is not an unexpected thing. It’s been happening in other countries and in Canada before Judith’s death.”
McGorman wants to see changes here as well. He’s become involved with the Canadian Standards Association to lobby for stricter labelling instructions on ethanol devices.
He and the family members of others who’ve been seriously hurt in similar accidents banded together to pressure Health Canada for tougher rules. The pressure is apparently paying off.
This week, Health Canada sent a warning to the Retail Council of Canada, along with companies that manufacture, import, or advertise the “products of concern.” The department warned that “if prohibited products are found on the market, immediately enforcement action” will be taken to remove them.
“There should be a moratorium on the sale of these fireplaces,” said McGorman. “Because in their present configuration they are unsafe.”
CBC News has asked Health Canada to name the brands and models that are now prohibited.
$12 million lawsuit
Personal injury lawyer John McLeish is representing Jim McGorman’s family, and has filed a lawsuit seeking $12 million in damages against the maker of the ethanol that played a role in the death of Judith.
“People are not going to use these products perfectly every time,” said McLeish. “The consequences of not following strict instructions — if there are any — shouldn’t be death, or that someone is badly maimed.”
His firm currently has seven similar lawsuits under way in Ontario, all related to tabletop firepots or fireplaces that use alcohol-based fuel.
Warner Graham is a Maryland-based company named in the McGorman action. It told CBC News that ethanol is not “an active market for us currently.”
In an email, a spokesperson recommends consumers always follow hazard communication information on packaging, which includes “keep away from heat, sparks, open flames and hot surfaces.” He notes that the company’s packaging and closures are designed to comply with local, state and federal regulations for fire prevention.
How to use safely
As for the recent case in Toronto, the grandfather of the injured baby girl says he was “dying” of remorse, blaming himself – that is, until a nurse at the emergency ward told him that she’d seen several people recently who’d also been burned in similar accidents involving ethanol devices.
“I realized this wasn’t me being negligent,” he said. “I’ve had this fireplace for three years and have always been safety-oriented with it, to make sure nothing happened. What I’d never experienced though, was an invisible flame.”
The Ontario Fire Marshal said it is possible to refuel an ethanol-fuelled device safely, but it requires special care, which is not widely understood. The office makes three important recommendations:
Leave the device off for at least 30 minutes before refuelling, and make sure it’s cold to the touch.
Refuel away from people.
Use a fuel canister with a flame arrestor, a small mesh insert that prevents flame-jetting. Most ethanol containers currently on the market do not have flame arrestors. “I’ve been to Home Hardware and bought a jug of ethanol and it’s basically just sold in a vinegar container. There’s really no safety measures at all,” said Jim McGorman. Consumers are advised to ask retailers for a container with a flame arrestor.