The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us


2130 Medical Laboratories
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-5661; fax (319) 335-9917

Release: June 23, 1999

UI burn specialist encourages safe use of household chemicals

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Stop! Before using caustic chemicals to declog that drain or scrub that stove, make sure you have taken the proper safety precautions, warns a University of Iowa burn specialist in a recent study.

Lucy A. Wibbenmeyer, M.D., UI assistant professor of surgery, and her colleagues reviewed 19 years of records from the UI Hospitals and Clinics burn unit. Although chemical burns made up only a small portion of the overall 2,763 cases, Wibbenmeyer is concerned about the number and severity of household chemical burns.

"From our analysis, I believe the public needs more education on the safe use of household chemicals, such as drain decloggers and oven cleaners," she said.

Household chemicals caused 14 percent of the chemical burns that the hospital burn unit staff treated during the 19-year period. Of those cases, almost half (46.2 percent) required grafting. Wibbenmeyer hopes that increasing people's awareness of the caustic nature of these chemicals and how to handle them and any spills will help decrease the number of household chemical burn cases.

"To prevent household chemical burns, people just need to use common sense," she said.

Wibbenmeyer recommends:

    • Locking up all chemicals and keeping them away from kids.
    • Reading the cleaner instructions before use and wearing gloves.
    • Wearing eye protection if there is any chance that the substance might splash.

Should an individual become burned, simply washing the affected area is not enough, Wibbenmeyer said.

"You must flush the area with water immediately and keep flushing. You can't stop," she said. "That is the best thing that you can do to treat one of these burns and decrease the severity of the burn. It is also important to make sure that you remove any chemical-soaked clothing from the area."

Wibbenmeyer also suggests consulting a physician. It is difficult enough for trained medical personnel to make a determination on a burn, let alone an average person.

"Burns tend to deepen over the first 24 to 48 hours, especially chemical burns," Wibbenmeyer said. "The earlier people can get medical attention, the better."

While enroute to the hospital, Wibbenmeyer recommends continuing to flush the affected area or keeping it submerged in water.

"That would be ideal," Wibbenmeyer said. "At the very least, they should flush for 30 minutes or until symptoms, burning and pain go away."

To see a physician at the UI Hospitals and Clinics, a person needs only to go to the burn unit on the 8th floor of the John Colloton Pavilion. The staff sees outpatients 24 hours a day without first requiring a referral from the hospital's Emergency Treatment Center.