Study: Unsafe gun, poison chemical storage in homes can turn holiday visits deadly


CHAPEL HILL -- Many U.S. residents who have younger children at home are negligent in storing guns and poisonous materials, but those whose homes children only visit are significantly worse, according to a new study.

The study, conducted by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Injury Prevention Research Center investigators, showed that in 55 percent of homes where young children lived, household chemicals were stored in places accessible to those children. Such compounds were not secured in 74 percent of homes where children were only visitors, said Dr. Tamera Coyne-Beasley, associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at the UNC School of Medicine.

One third of U.S. gun owners with children under age 6 kept a firearm unlocked at home whereas guns were kept unlocked in 56 percent of homes where children visited, Coyne-Beasley said. The overall odds of reported unlocked storage of both guns and household poisonous chemicals were two and a half times higher in homes where young children visited than in their own homes.

In 2001, 233 unintentional firearm injuries and 93,703 unintentional poisonings occurred among children under age 6.

"With the holidays approaching, people need to be much more careful in keeping potentially lethal compounds and firearms safely secured," she said. "Every year, preventable tragedies happen because people forget how children like to explore and get into things and how vulnerable they are to accidents."

A report on the findings will appear in the January issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a scholarly publication. Co-authors are Dr. Carol W. Runyan, professor of health behavior and health education at the UNC School of Public Health and director of the injury prevention center; Dr. Lorena Baccaglini, now a dental school faculty member at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio; biostatistician David Perkis, a doctoral student at Purdue University, and Renee M. Johnson, a postdoctoral fellow in injury control at Harvard University.

The study involved surveying adults in 1,003 randomly selected households across the continental United States and asking them 92 questions related to safety, including storage of guns and various poisons such as prescription and non-prescription drugs, furniture polish and drain cleaners, Coyne-Beasley said. Callers identified 637 in which children under age 6 lived or visited

Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 9 in this country, she said. About a fourth of U.S. children seek medical attention for injuries every year. Children and other young peoples' relatively easy access to firearms is a major contributor to an epidemic of gun deaths. About a third of U.S. homes contain guns.

"The total firearm-related injury death rate for youth here is 16 times higher than the rate for other industrialized nations, and the unintentional gun-related death rate is nine times higher," Coyne-Beasley said. "Clearly, strategies are needed to improve the storage practices of both poisons and firearms to minimize in-home hazards to young children and to eliminate the barriers to safe storage. Parents need to investigate the safety practices in the homes where their children visit whether other children live there or not. Among these are the homes of grandparents, babysitters and friends."

In a related study released in August 2001, Coyne-Beasley and colleagues found that 44 percent of police officers surveyed kept their weapons both unlocked and loaded at home, which could put them and their families at increased risk for firearm-related injuries. Eighty-five percent said they felt an added need to protect themselves and their families because of their work in law enforcement.

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