House Fires: Why There is Fatal Danger Beyond the Flames

Most deaths occur because of smoke inhalation
House Fires: Why There is Fatal Danger Beyond the Flames

There are more than 1 million house fires in the United States each year and more than 3,000 people will die each year as a result of fires. But the cause of death in a fire usually is not from being burned — more often than not, deaths in house fires are a result of smoke inhalation.

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Often, the smoke in a house fires overcomes people so quickly that they can’t make it to an otherwise accessible exit, the National Fire Protection Organization (NFPA) says.

When people think of death by fire, they typically imagine fire breaking out in a place that is crowded with strangers, like a movie theater or restaurant. In reality, the people who die in fires typically die in ones and twos, in their own homes and vehicles, the NFPA says.

Although homes fires and deaths have been declining since 1977, four out of five fire-related deaths among non-firefighters occur in the home.

Smoke inhalation

While the danger of being burned by a fire is evident, many people are unaware of the dangers of smoke inhalation, says emergency department physician Baruch Fertel, MD.

“When you inhale smoke from a fire, you’re really inhaling a combination of a bunch of toxic products,” Dr. Fertel says. “The ‘smoke’ is mostly carbon monoxide, but also contains cyanide. Many homes have a lot of synthetic material such as rubber, plastic, or foam. When those materials burn, they can cause cyanide poisoning.”

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Cyanide is a poisonous chemical gas that prevents your body from absorbing and using oxygen, Dr. Fertel says.

Inhaling the toxic combustion of materials in the home also impairs respiration and can cause suffocation, Dr. Fertel says. Oxygen deprivation, even for short periods of time, can cause irreversible harm.

People who have sustained carbon monoxide poisoning have a risk for cognitive delays or other neurological issues, Dr. Fertel says.

A common cause

While many factors can be responsible for a house fire, one of the most common causes during cold weather months is a space heater.

If you must use a space heater, Dr. Fertel recommends getting a new one that is equipped with safety features and to always make sure it is operated in an area with ventilation.

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“If it’s something that burns, such as a combustion heater, it’s really important to make sure that the area is vented,” Dr. Fertel says. “One good safety features is a tip-over feature that makes sure that the device shuts off if it tips over.” 


It is never safe to enter a burning home, even if you think you are away from flames, Dr. Fertel says.

“It only takes a short period of time to be overcome by smoke inhalation,” he says.

It’s also important to always having working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in the home.

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