Commonly Used Skin Creams Pose Fire Hazard
As someone who has suffered from eczema all my life I often get over-the-counter skin creams to help treat it when it flares up.
One thing I had never considered was the fact that many of these preparations contain paraffin.
The BBC has been reporting today on a number of fire deaths that appear to have occurred when such creams accidentally caught fire.
The most worrying thing for me is that in all the years I have been using these creams I have never seen any kind of warning regarding fire risk with them.
What is Paraffin?
Paraffin (also known as kerosene) is highly flammable and has been used in a variety of forms as a fuel. The following is taken from a paper by Schwebel and Swart :
A hydrocarbon fuel created through distillation of petroleum, paraffin is invaluable for many reasons. It is relatively inexpensive to produce and consume, readily accessible, and it offers heat, light, and cooking opportunities to millions of individuals who would otherwise be without a domestic source of energy. Paraffin use is documented in most countries of the world, but is used by particularly large numbers of people in Africa and South Asia.
Paraffin is highly flammable, and poses fire risk when contaminated by water or other fuels; when used in malfunctioning appliances; when used by youth, intoxicated individuals, or other vulnerable individuals; when used purposely in acts of aggression or self-harm; and in dozens of other situations. Once a fire starts, children are at particular risk of paraffin-related burns due to their reduced mobility, undeveloped risk perception, longer sleeping hours, and greater likelihood to sleep deeply.
The BBC tried to obtain figures for how common paraffin skin cream related fire deaths were in the UK by asking all 53 regional fire departments to provide information:
"Just six from England provided information - revealing the 37 fatal incidents [between now and 2010]. The majority came from the London Fire Brigade which reported 28 fatalities."
Even if this comprises the entirety of the fire deaths in the whole of the UK (which would be highly unlikely) it is actually a significant number.
My Own Quick Estimate for Incidence in London
I couldn't find detailed statistics for every year but this London Fire Brigade website does say that there were 47 deaths in 2010.
If we extrapolate using that figure of 47 per year from 2010 to 2017 that would give us a total of 329 fire deaths over the last seven years.
Those 28 skin cream related deaths would therefore represent almost 9% of fire related deaths in London.
Note, this is almost certainly an underestimate as the actual fire deaths have been on a general downward trend.
For comparison in 2015, 36 people died in London as a result of fire - I used the higher figure since the site does not provide figures for the years in between.
Combine this with the fact that (according to fire officials from the BBC report) there is a lack of awareness of this as a potential fire hazard and it suggests the actual percentage will be significantly higher.
This is just looking at fatalities though.
Many more people might be surviving with life changing burns - not exactly a great outcome either.
What Can be Done?
Firstly there needs to be more awareness of this issue and vigilance in regards to recording how many injuries and deaths occur specifically as a result of using these creams.
There also need to be warnings on packets to at least advise people of the risk and the need to avoid heat sources, cigarettes, naked flames etc if they use them.
It seems that 2 manufacturers (E45 and Cetraben) are looking into providing such warnings.
Personally I will be looking at using alternative paraffin free creams but that also leaves me with some lingering questions:
Lingering Issues and Questions
One point that people may not consider is that regularly used creams (of any kind) can actually infiltrate clothing and bedding and this may not be adequately removed by washing.
I actually heard this on a radio interview with a fire official as a potential additional problem.
I'm not sure what exactly we can do to get around this beyond trashing our bedding and clothing - not exactly an ideal or inexpensive solution - particularly as there is no way to be sure if they are actually posing a risk.
It is also important to be sure that we are not just replacing one flammable substance with another if we get rid of paraffin based creams.
For example how flammable is Vaseline? As I understand it is a petroleum derivative just like paraffin.
I'd also be interested to know how flammable creams containing more natural ingredients or oils are in comparison to paraffin based ones.
It would be pointless to replace one flammable component with one that is equally flammable!
As always let me know what you think. Also do you have any alternatives you would like to suggest?
Thank you for reading
Adrian Goldberg, Ben Robinson. 2017. “Skin Creams Containing Paraffin Linked to Fire Deaths - BBC News.” BBC News. BBC News. March 19. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39308748.
Schwebel, David C., and Dehran Swart. 2009. “Preventing Paraffin-Related Injury.” Journal of Injury & Violence Research 1 (1): 3–5.
London Fire Brigade. 2017. “London Fire Brigade - News Release Archive Container 2016,” March. London Fire Brigade. http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/news/LatestNewsReleases_fires-and-fire-deaths-down-over-five-years.asp#.WM69ARLyjDY.