When you think about life-threatening danger, things like car accidents, natural disasters, and crime might come to mind. But many major hazards aren’t this obvious. Instead, they might be lurking around the place you probably feel safest: your home. An astonishing number of injuries and fatalities result from common household items and activities, which we’ll go over in more detail in a bit.
The specific dangers in each home will largely depend on who’s living there, national registered paramedic and emergency medical services (EMS) educator Greg Friese, editorial director of EMS1.com, tells SELF. “A single young person has a different set of risk factors than, say, a family with young children, or a family with teenagers, or older adults,” he explains.
The good news is that it’s usually easy to prevent a wide range of household dangers with some simple safety measures. To help you out, we picked the brains of a few emergency responders to learn some of the most common residential risks. Here are some of the most common hazards in your home.
1. Anything you can trip over
Accidental falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injury among basically every age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (The only exception is people between 15 and 24. For that age range, unintentional strikes by or against objects take the number one spot, and unintentional falls come in second.)
The risk of an unintentional fall—and the likelihood that it will be serious—climbs in older adults, says Friese, as they’re more likely to lose their balance and trip over things like rugs, small steps, pets getting underfoot, or toys and other objects. An astounding 3 million adults 65 and older (that’s one in four) experience falls that send them to emergency departments each year, according to the CDC, often resulting in serious injuries like hip fractures.
Major risk factors for accidental falls include lower body weakness, vitamin D deficiency (this nutrient helps with bone strength), vision problems, medicines that affect balance, difficulty walking, and more, according to the CDC. Friese notes that alcohol is an additional risk factor, especially if you have a few drinks then try to putter around with any chores or activities that involve lots of movement around the house.
2. Unstable furniture
“[Little kids] like to run and jump and climb on anything they can try to get on top of,” Friese says. This can spell disaster if that object is something like a tall, heavy dresser that comes with the risk of tipping over.
Such “tip-over” incidents send over 15,000 people to the ER every year, with most of these injuries involving young children, according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The most common culprits are big, top-heavy items that aren’t anchored to a wall, like dressers, bureaus, and chests. (TVs, too, which we’ll dig into more in the next item.) Tragically, 431 children died in this type of accident between 2000 and 2016, according to a 2017 CPSC report, but older people aren’t immune. The report also found that 11,300 of the 30,700 ER visits for tip-over incidents between 2014 and 2016 involved adults.
The good news is that many large items of furniture come with straps you can use to attach the pieces to the wall, emergency medical technician (EMT) Michael Marasco, a representative of the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics (IAEP), tells SELF. If you don’t have the equipment to anchor something to the wall, the CPSC recommends investing in an “anti-tip device” for about $ 5 to $ 25.
3. That massive TV
Though your TV can be a source of endless delight, it can also present danger. Around a third of those tip-over ER visits reported to the CPSC involved TVs. The CPSC advises using only designated TV stands and media centers (so, not a rickety antique table or random stool, for instance), or mounting your TV to a wall.
4. Your busted smoke alarm
“Sometimes people disable them because they’re a nuisance, or the batteries have worn out and they don’t replace them,” Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), tells SELF. Sadly, this can be deadly. “We find that the majority of home fire deaths happen in homes with either no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms,” Carli says. Specifically, three out of five home fire deaths from 2009 to 2013 were in homes with no smoke alarms or with smoke alarms that didn’t work, according to a 2015 report from the NFPA. Overall, the report found that fires are more than twice as deadly in homes that do not have any working smoke alarms.
To avoid this, the NFPA recommends having an alarm in every bedroom, outside of every sleeping area, and on each level of your home (including the basement). You may need more alarms than that if your home is large. To be most effective, use interconnected alarms so that if one starts wailing, the rest join in.
At least once a month, you should use that handy “test” button on each alarm to make sure they’re still working as ear-piercingly well as they should. You should also replace each smoke alarm 10 years from the date of manufacture, which you can check on the back of the device. Yes, it’s annoying to get out the ladder and everything, but if you need to evacuate, those extra few minutes of warning can make all the difference. So can having a solid plan in place in the event that you need to leave your home due to a fire. Here’s NFPA guidance on how to create one.
5. That pot you left on the stove
Cooking equipment is the biggest cause of home fires and related injuries, according to the NFPA. “Unattended cooking is the leading factor contributing to cooking fires,” Carli says. Specifically, it plays into 33 percent of home cooking fires and 43 percent of the deaths from them, according to the NFPA. The number one way to avoid this is to not walk away while you’re cooking. Although leaving something like a slow cooker on and unattended overnight isn’t likely to be hugely risky (hello, This Is Us), it’s still not ideal if you want to be as safe as possible.
As you stick around in the kitchen while your food cooks, make sure you don’t leave things too close to the open fire or hot surface of your stove, Carli says. Sixty-two percent of these fires happen on the stovetop or range. Keep that area clear of dish rags, pot holders, pasta boxes, paper towels, food wrappers, wooden spoons, and anything else that might catch a flame.
So, what if a fire does break out in your kitchen despite your best efforts? Whether you should try to fight it or just get out ASAP depends on the circumstances. If the fire seems even a smidge too big or intimidating to control, get out and call 911.
According to the NFPA, you should only use a home fire extinguisher when the fire is contained in a small space, not growing in size or spreading to the surrounding area, and isn’t filling the room with smoke. The NFPA also recommends that you clear the building of people and call the fire department before trying to fight the fire. You also need to consider what exactly caught fire—using water or a fire extinguisher can just make things worse if you have an oil blaze, for example.
While fire extinguishers are a great additional safety measure for any household in the case of a minor fire, Friese emphasizes that they are just one part of a fire response plan that also needs to include working smoke alarms and evacuation routes.
6. Your nonexistent carbon monoxide detector
Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a toxic gas byproduct from burning fuel like gasoline, propane, and natural gas, according to the CDC. Everyday heating and cooking appliances like charcoal grills and furnaces can create CO, as can devices like generators and running cars. The problem is that CO gets extremely dangerous to your health when it builds up in an enclosed area.
The symptoms of CO poisoning range depending on the level of exposure, Marasco says. In general, you may experience headaches, dizziness, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion, according to the CDC. At high enough levels, CO can cause you to lose consciousness or even kill you. Over 400 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year, according to the CDC, and another 4,000 wind up in the hospital.
CO is often dubbed a silent killer for good reason: “Carbon monoxide is virtually impossible to detect by smell, sight, or sound, making it a difficult threat to discern,” Marasco says. This means that having working CO detectors in your home is paramount. The CDC recommends installing battery-operated CO detectors by every sleeping area (some smoke alarms double as CO detectors as well), and checking them regularly to make sure that the batteries aren’t dead and that they’re still working properly. Marasco also advises against leaving your car running in the garage, and having your heaters, water heaters, and any appliances that use gas or oil inspected regularly.
Be vigilant when it comes to the generators you use when the power goes out in the wake of storms or natural disasters, too. The CDC recommends only using generators outdoors (not even in an open garage), at least 20 feet from your house.
7. Windows, along with their blinds and cords
A 2011 study published in Pediatrics examined 19 years of data, reporting that on average, over 5,100 children go to the emergency room every year for injuries related to window falls. Even first-story windows pose a risk, Friese explains, because in addition to falling out, children trying to climb up onto the sill can fall backwards down onto the floor and hurt themselves.
The other threats here are window blinds and their related parts. According to a 2018 Pediatrics study, from 1990 to 2015, injuries related to window blinds sent nearly 17,000 children under 6 to the emergency room. Of those cases, 11.9 percent involved some form of entanglement, most commonly around the neck. This can get tragic in an instant; between 1990 and 2015, 271 children died after being hospitalized due to this kind of entanglement, according to the report.
There are a few simple ways to minimize these risks, according to the CPSC. Always have screens on all your windows, and consider installing window guards, too. When windows are closed, be sure to keep them locked. Also keep any cords out of small children’s reach, or if you can, switch over to curtains or cordless blinds or shades. Never put cribs, beds, or furniture close to windows.
8. Toxic everyday products
A full 93 percent of the 2.2 million poison exposures reported to poison control centers in 2016 took place inside the home. Children under 6 accounted for nearly half of these calls.
The message to parents: If it’s poisonous and in reach, your kid may try to eat it. “Scented items such as … plug ins or burners that emit a sweet odor can be mistaken for a treat,” Marasco says. And think of how many potentially toxic things are hanging out in your cabinets right at child-level, like cleaning supplies, medications, and beauty products. Plus, remember all the commotion about people eating detergent pods? Liquid laundry packets sent 5,800 children under 6 to the ER in 2016, the CPSC estimates.
“Do things to make it difficult for toddler-age children to be able to get [to these items],” says Friese, who adds that you shouldn’t overlook areas like your garage, which may house things like pesticides and weed killers.
If someone in your home has ingested something toxic, call Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) immediately to find out what to do. You can explain the exact nature of the exposure, and they can advise you on what to do (and tell you when it’s time to call 911), Friese says, adding that you can post the number on your fridge or add it to your phone contacts for easy access.
That source of summer fun is also the site of many injuries and fatalities in the United States. On average, 351 children under 15 die from drowning every year, according to the CPSC, and there are an additional 6,400 nonfatal drowning injuries annually in that age range.
Marasco recommends making sure there is a gate or fence around your pool to keep children from accidentally falling in. And no matter how natural a swimmer your little one is, keep an eye on them. “There needs to be an awake, alert, and sober adult watching the kids swim,” Friese says.
The less obvious (and way less common) peril here is suction from the pool drain, often ones that have missing or broken covers, says Marasco. “Suction from a pool drain can be so powerful that it can hold an adult under water, but most incidents involve children. The body can become sealed against the drain or hair can be pulled in and tangled,” he says. This is rare (with only 11 incidents being reported to the CPSC in recent years), but near-misses may not go reported. Make sure any drains in your pools have working covers, and let kids know not to play around with them.
We’re not telling you all of this to scare you, but to help you realize there are ways to make your home even safer than it already is.
This might feel like a deluge of terrifying information, but the real point here is that every single one of these threats also comes with actionable measures you can take against them. If there’s a specific item on this list that particularly freaks you out, feel free to do more research on the best way to protect yourself and your family. After all, knowledge is power.