84Understandably, large disasters with a significant number of casualties usually receive the most attention from media and researchers. When those events occur, researchers mobilize to find out what went wrong and why, so that codes and standards, if necessary, can be updated to prevent them from happening again. As a result, catastrophes with high numbers of fatalities are rare in countries where standards are continuously evolving.
While this approach has many positives, it also contains some major blind spots. To our detriment, researchers and the public tend to overlook the smaller, everyday incidents that may impact only a few people at a time but can add up like a million paper cuts into a huge societal problem. The most prominent example is home cooking fires, which was the theme of this year’s NFPA Fire Prevention Week this past October. Despite the fact that deaths, injuries, and property loss from cooking fires continue to be a major global problem, the topic gets relatively scant attention.
Amazingly, even as the United States has reduced fire-related deaths in almost every major category, deaths from home cooking fires are the exception—they are worse today than 30 years ago. According to a recent report from NFPA Research, between 2014 and 2018 an annual average of 550 people died in the US due to fires started by cooking, making it the second-leading cause of home fire death behind smoking materials. By comparison, between 1980 and 1984, 500 people died from cooking fires per year. What’s more, cooking is now the leading cause of both reported home fires and home fire injuries in the US.
We have to do better.
Data analyzed by NFPA Research shows that two thirds of cooking fires happening in homes began with the ignition of cooking materials, including food. Half of these fires were caused by fires involving cooking oil or grease.Leaving cooking unattended can lead to overheating and eventually ignition of either what is cooking or burnable items such as potholders or wrappers in the vicinity. Unattended cooking, the leading cause of cooking fires, caused more than half of the deaths in home cooking fires in the US from 2014 to 2018.
Recent research performed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) emphasizes the significant hazards from unattended cooking. Researchers put 150 grams of cooking oil (about 2/3 cup) in a 9.7 cm (3.8-inch) diameter pot and left it heating on a stovetop. Eventually the oil ignited, causing a flame with a height of almost 1 meter (3 feet), tall enough to reach combustible cabinets above the stove. The heat release rate of the cooking oil fire was more than three times as intense as a fire caused by igniting the same amount of gasoline in the same size cooking pot.
So, what can we do? One option is to prevent a cooking fire from spreading or even extinguish it using home fire sprinklers. Unfortunately, the use of home fire sprinklers is often met with resistance due to installation costs and therefore sprinklers are only present in a small percentage of homes – such as newer high-rise apartment buildings. Another potential solution is to prevent fires from happening in the first place. This can be done by educating the public about the risk of cooking fires and what to do or more importantly not to do when cooking.
Public education on cooking fire safety is done regularly around the world – the latest example being NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week theme this year. While public education is an important tool in our fire safety tool kit, we recognize that human behavior is not as consistent as we safety professionals would like it to be. Distractions happen easily when we cook whether it’s a child needing attention, a pet getting into something it shouldn’t, dinner guests arriving, or our favorite football team scoring. Ensuring that cooking won’t become hot enough to catch fire by incorporating cooktop ignition prevention technology is another solution to prevent cooking fires from happening these days. That was the aim in 2014 when the Fire Protection Research Foundation led a project, sponsored by NIST, on the potential effectiveness of various technologies to reduce cooking fires. The work informed the technical basis for changes to UL 858, Household Electric Ranges Standard for Safety, to prevent cooktop ignition during unattended cooking.
While the change to UL 858 was a great step forward, it applies only to electric coil cooktops, and therefore only addresses part of the problem. In China, Japan, and South Korea, however, research, standards, and regulations have focused more on gas-fueled cooktops. Information from Japan indicates that deaths from cooking fires were reduced by almost 40 percent in the five years following the introduction of regulations on gas cooktops. Other countries should take note and look at adopting similar lifesaving measures.
Every week 10-plus people die in cooking fires in the US. That means that every 7 weeks we have as many fatalities from cooking fires in the US as there was in the Grenfell tower fire in London. People were rightfully upset after the Grenfell tower fire and demanded action from their government. But due to home cooking fires only causing one or two fatalities at a time there is no call for action to prevent these incidents from happening. These fires deserve our attention, and they require researchers working with industry leaders to develop technologies, standards, and regulations that will make this scourge a thing of the past.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the September/October edition of NFPA Journal. Visit www.nfpa.org to learn more about NFPA Journal, NFPA Applied Research, cooking fire safety, and more.