- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

Centreville resident Scott O’Toole keeps his children from using the fireplace to burn wrapping paper after opening Christmas gifts. It is just one of many safety precautions he and his family take around the house during the holidays.

“Don’t ever burn wrapping paper in your fireplace. It can ignite suddenly and cause a flash fire. It’s not just all paper,” says Mr. O’Toole, operations manager of Lowe’s of Chantilly. Wrapping paper, he explains, has flammable components.

In addition, Mr. O’Toole advises cleaning the fireplace flue once a year and extinguishing fires before bedtime. His advice is just one aspect of practicing holiday home safety to avoid injury and illness when decorating, putting up Christmas trees and serving holiday meals.

Fires and burns, along with falls, poisoning, choking and drowning, are the top five causes of home injuries and death, says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, a nonprofit organization in Northwest dedicated to preventing home-related injuries.

” ‘A safe home is in your hands’ is our tag line,” Ms. Appy says.

To prevent falls, Ms. Appy advises using a ladder instead of a chair when getting things out of storage and hanging decorations. The ladder, she says, should be placed on an even surface directly under the work area and moved as the job progresses. When one is hanging holiday lights or working with electricity, the ladder should be wooden or fiberglass, not metal, she says.

Extension ladders should be used no higher than the fourth rung from the top and step ladders no higher than the second step from the top, Ms. Appy says.

“When you’re hanging lights, make sure you have a spotter,” says Eric Stromer, host of HGTV’s show “Over Your Head” and author of “Do-It-Yourself Family.” “Make sure you have a solid 6-foot ladder. If it’s too old and rickety and wobbles on you, buy one less present and get a better ladder.”

Ladders, extension cords, tools and anything else needed to do a job should be inspected for damage and used only for their intended uses, says Bill Edwards, Home Depot Inc.’s district asset protection manager in charge of loss prevention and safety. His office is in Laurel.

“The biggest thing I talk about when I talk about safety is make a plan. Make a list of what you need to do and supplies you need,” Mr. Edwards says.

For decorating with holiday lights, find lights that are UL (Underwriters Laboratories Inc.) marked and have a green UL tag for indoor use or red tag for combined indoor/outdoor use, Mr. O’Toole says.

“Never use nails or staples to hang lights,” he says, adding that plastic hooks or clips should be used instead.

Mr. O’Toole recommends using no more than three strands of lights per electrical outlet and replacing any frayed or damaged lights and extension cords because they can spark and cause a fire.

“Don’t leave the Christmas tree or holiday lights on overnight. You just don’t want that unsupervised power anytime a circuit is on,” Mr. Stromer says.

The Christmas tree, if fresh or live cut, should have green needles; dried-out trees can present a fire danger, Ms. Appy says. When the tree is taken home, the trunk should be recut at an angle to expose more surface for water absorption, and the tree should be kept in water, she says.

“Limit, if you can, the amount of time that the tree is going to be in your home, because it will dry out much faster in a heated, enclosed environment,” she says.

When buying an artificial tree, Ms. Appy recommends looking for a label that says the tree is fire-resistant.

Live trees — as well as artificial ones — should be kept away from heat sources, such as heating vents, fireplaces, space heaters and candles, that can dry out the tree, Mr. O’Toole says.

The decorations used on a tree can present a hazard, including small ornaments that can be a choking hazard for children and glass ornaments that can break, Ms. Appy says.

Candles can be a fire hazard and should be placed in a sturdy container at least a foot away from any flammable materials and burned only when there is an adult in the room, Ms. Appy says. Space heaters, another potential fire hazard, should be operated at least three feet away from draperies and upholstered furniture and turned off when one leaves the room or goes to bed, she says.

“The message is space heaters need space,” she says.

Cooking improperly can be another source of fire or burns.

“The biggest problem is people putting something on the stove, leaving it and getting distracted,” Ms. Appy says. “If you have to leave the room, turn the stove off or way down.”

A few guidelines should be followed to keep food safe, including frequently washing hands and surfaces and using separate knives and utensils for raw meats, poultry and eggs to avoid cross-contamination, says Rose Clifford, a registered dietitian and research nutritionist for MedStar Clinical Research Center in Southeast.

Foods should be cooked to the proper internal temperature, which for poultry is 165 degrees and for beef is 145 degrees, Ms. Clifford says.

“You want to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot,” she says.

Spoilage bacteria, which makes fruits and vegetables look slimy, does not cause illness, but pathogenic bacteria, which does not affect the look or taste of food, can cause food poisoning, Ms. Clifford says. Pathogenic bacteria can result from poor food handling, improper cooking temperatures and poor environmental conditions, she says.

When serving food, the two-hour rule should be followed, meaning that hot or cold foods can remain at room temperature for up to two hours, says registered dietitian Mary Beth Sodus, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist for the University of Maryland Center for Weight Management and Wellness. The foods can be kept in small containers that make it easier to change out and refrigerate any leftovers, she says.

Foods with mayonnaise or dairy products should not be left out for more than an hour, says Dr. Mary Pat McKay, emergency physician and director of the Center for Injury Prevention at George Washington University Medical Center in Northwest.

Food poisoning results from bacteria growing in the food and producing toxins, which cause symptoms within two hours, or from bacteria that grows when ingested, causing symptoms in six to eight hours, Dr. McKay says.

The peak times for food poisoning are during the holidays and picnic season, she says.

“Remember the words clean, separate, cook and chill, just following really simple procedures,” Ms. Clifford says.

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