It may seem like an urban legend: Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone whose child was trapped in a refrigerator or freezer and died, yet few people have had direct experience with this life-threatening situation. The bad news is that it's no legend. Children can become trapped in some refrigerators and freezers and die. The good news is that few people have experienced this because it's a relatively rare occurrence now that safety laws have been passed requiring a change in the design of refrigerators and freezers.
Dangers for Children
Older-style refrigerators have a heavy door that young children are not able to push open, or are held by magnets too strong for a child to dislodge and open. If children become closed inside the refrigerator, they may not have the strength to push the door open. Some older-style refrigerators also have a metal latch that closes and locks the door, and it cannot be opened from the inside, even by an adult. Children who are playing hide and seek or who are exploring an old refrigerator in the home may become trapped for hours without an adult realizing it. In that amount of time, they can suffocate and die. "Chic Mom" magazine reports that 163 children died after being stuck in refrigerators between 1956 and 1964, and another 96 children between 1973 and 1984. Most incidents involve refrigerators made before 1958, when safety laws were passed mandating changes in the design of refrigerators. Despite it being so long since those changes were enacted, incidents continue to be reported since some people still have these refrigerators in their homes.
Congress passed the Refrigerator Safety Act in 1956, and the law went into effect in 1958. The law required that refrigerators be able to be opened from the inside with only 15 pounds of pressure, or to have an internal mechanism such as a knob to open them. A study published in the journal "Pediatrics" in 1958 entitled "Behavior of Young Children Under Conditions Simulating Entrapment in Refrigerators" tested how children reacted when they were locked inside a playhouse that simulated the size and construction of a refrigerator. The study found that 2-year-olds were only able to exert about 12 pounds of pressure when trying to open the door from the inside, and most 5-year-olds could exert about 25 pounds of pressure. Researchers recommended a knob or similar mechanism to be able to open the door from the inside.
Many of these older-style refrigerators are still in people's homes, yards and basements, as well as in landfills. "The New York Times" reported that two children died after being trapped in a refrigerator left in a yard in Queens in 1987. Safety officials recommend that owners remove the doors from old refrigerators that are discarded in landfills or kept in a common area like a yard. It is the only way to be sure that children do not become trapped inside. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers also recommends that consumers determine if a refrigerator or freezer poses a hazard by trying to open it without using the handle. If the door won't open, such as if there is a latch on it or if the door is too heavy, the door should be removed or the refrigerator discarded.
Inside the Home
If you still have an older-style refrigerator in your home, it may be best to discard the refrigerator so that it is not a threat to your children. Even obedient children can become curious and find themselves in a dangerous situation. Warning children about the dangers of the refrigerator may not be enough to mitigate the risk. If you are not using the refrigerator, but do not want to discard it for some reason -- or cannot discard it -- simply remove the door.
- Scientopia: Friday Weird Science: Refrigerator Mothers v. Refrigerator Kids
- New York Times: Two Children, Trapped in a Refrigerator, Die
- The Hairpin: On Trapping Children in Refrigerators for Science, 1958
- Ma'an News Agency: 3 Children Die After Getting Trapped in Refrigerator
- Chic Mom Magazine: Why Don't You Hear about Children Trapped in Refrigerators Anymore?
- Chicago Tribune: Tot Stuck in Fridge Sends Chills Up Spine
- Association of Home Applican Manufacturers: Chest Freezer Entrapment
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