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Water temperature a matter of life and death with kids

November 5, 2012
By Betsy Flagler

Alice Robards of Dallas lived to be 95. Her daughter never made it to age 3. The "awful hurt" of her little girl's accidental death stayed with her every day, she wrote in a letter to me a decade ago. She shared her own pain as a warning.

"It only takes a second or minutes to lose a precious child, and I hope your column serves to wake some logger-heads up," Robards wrote. "You turn your back on a child for just a minute, and something terrible happens. Parents aren't as careful as they should be."

Donna Jean Robards died of second-degree burns covering 85 percent of her body. How did this injury occur? "Child turned hot water on in the bathtub and could not get out," reads the death certificate.

"She was the only little girl I had," Robards wrote. Robards died in 2007, and is buried at the same Dallas cemetery as her daughter. She passed away holding onto a deep hurt from 1949, and said she was never able to talk to her husband about the tragic accident.

The rest of the story:

"My husband was supposed to care for our 2 1/2-year-old daughter while I was at work in our grocery business," Robards wrote. "She came by the bed with her little clothes and asked him to dress her."

She said her husband told the girl to wait until he was out of bed, but like many little kids, she was eager to get ready for her day. She got a bar of soap and climbed into the deep, old-fashioned tub. She turned on the water. It was hot.

"Every time she tried to get out, she slipped down into the hot water," she wrote. "By the time her dad realized she was in trouble and got her out of the hot water, she was in agony."

Mom rushed home from their family store to take her daughter to the hospital. Within three hours, her only child was gone.

I wondered when I first received this letter, and still wonder now, how some parents can bear to carry so much heartache their entire lives. Far too many are carrying that burden.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unintentional injuries have declined, but they're still the leading cause of death for United States children ages 1 to 19 and the fifth-leading cause of death for newborns and infants up to age 1. The report says that more than 9,000 young people die annually from motor vehicle-related accidents, fires, poisoning, drowning, falls and other unintentional injuries.

More than 35,000 children, most of them age 4 or younger, are treated each year in emergency rooms for tap-water scald burns, according to the national organization Safe Kids USA. The National Coalition to Prevent Childhood Injury, based in Washington, D.C., says scald burns account for about 100 deaths a year. Most of those deaths involve children under 5 or adults over 65.

Safe Kids USA's policy is that home water heaters should be set at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Water that's hotter than 125 degrees F can burn a child severely and quickly. Parents and caregivers can also use anti-scald devices to make sure hot water is safe for children.

Parents, please heed Alice Robards' warning. No one can predict or prevent every accident, but do what you can: Put safety guards on the faucets. Lower your water heater's temperature. And never - never - leave your baby or young child alone in the tub.

Parenting tip

Test your baby's bath water with your elbow. It should be warm, but not hot. Fill the bath with cold water first, and then add the hot water to the right temperature.

Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and preschool teacher. If you have tips or questions, please email her at or call Parent to Parent at 704-236-9510.



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