Falls From Windows Claiming Too Many Children's Lives

Over past two decades, nearly 2,000 deaths and many more injuries have occurred, U.S. study finds

By Ellin Holohan
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Aug. 22 (HealthDay News) -- For more than 5,000 American children each year, an open window brings serious injury or even death, a new report finds.

And the younger the child, the bigger the odds that a tumble from a window will prove lethal. The study, done at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that children under the age of five were more than three times as likely to die from head injuries sustained in window falls than children aged five to 17 years old.

And even though it's assumed that urban kids are at greatest risk, injuries from window falls occur "throughout the nation in urban and suburban areas," the study authors say.

"We have known for decades about the problem of children falling from windows," said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the center and an author of the study. "Despite the fact that we have known about it, we still have a problem."

Although falls from a window represent a small percentage of childhood mishaps, "they are preventable, and that's why we focus on them," said Smith.

The findings were published online Aug. 22 in the journal Pediatrics.

In the study, Smith's team used data gathered from 1990 to 2008 by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which collects information from emergency departments at 100 hospitals around the United States. Estimates of window falls, injuries and deaths were derived from the representative sample, said Smith.

Nearly 100,000 children were injured in falls from windows during that period, the researchers found.

The vast majority of injuries, 93 percent, occurred from first- and second-floor falls, probably because more children live in houses than high-rise buildings, Smith explained. But, he noted, 25 percent of all falls resulted in hospitalization, so falls from lower windows can be serious.

He said boys are more likely than girls to fall from a window, possibly as a result of horsing around or showing off for friends. Of the more than 98,000 children who were estimated to have fallen during the 19-year study period, 58 percent were boys.

Close to 2,000 children were estimated to have died from window falls between 1990-2008 but Smith said the number was probably lower than the reality, because the surveillance only captured deaths that occurred in emergency rooms.

These tragic deaths and injuries are unnecessary, experts say. Smith, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the College of Medicine at The Ohio State University, cited successful programs in New York City and Boston that educate parents about window dangers and require window guards or locks to helps keep children safe.

In the early 1970's both cities started advertising campaigns aimed at making parents aware of the risk of open windows, and landlords are now required to install window guards in apartments with young children.

"We know what works," said Smith, adding that the same measures need to be taken in the rest of the country.

For younger children, installing guards and moving furniture away from windows are good ways to prevent window falls, said Smith, noting that children under five "are exploring" and want to see what is outside the window.

"They aren't aware of the danger," he said.

Older children, meanwhile, can figure out how to remove window guards, so they need to be educated about risky behavior that can result in falls.

Another way to prevent injuries is to cushion surfaces under windows with shrubs and grass. Not surprisingly, more serious injuries occur where landing surfaces are hard, said Smith.

Noting the large number of injuries from lower stories, another expert called for a greater effort to educate the public. "There is a lot of room for public health campaigns about how to protect our children," said Dr. Tamara R. Kuittinen, director of medical education in the department of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

"We still see these injuries," she said, even though the study showed a decline in injuries to children under 5 during the first 10 years of the study, mainly due to the types of campaigns noted in the research. The study also showed that windows, "no matter how high, can be dangerous to children," said Kuittinen.

"We need to push lobbyists" to get the needed legislation to combat the problem, she said.

More information

To learn more about how to protect children from window falls, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

SOURCES: Gary A. Smith, M.D., DrPH, director, The Center for Injury Research and Policy, The Research Institute, Nationwide Children's Hospital, and professor, department of pediatrics, College of Medicine, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; Tamara R. Kuittinen, M.D., director, medical education, department of emergency medicine, Lenox Hill Hospital, NYC; online, Aug. 22, 2011, and Sept. 2011 print issue, Pediatrics

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