Hot dog as child hazard Choking danger: Vigilance needed to protect small children from asphyxiation.

February 22, 1996

PARENTS QUICKLY LEARN that young children can choke to death from lots of seemingly harmless objects, from balloons to small toys to large pieces of food. It's part of a long list of warnings about dangers to wee ones of commonplace items.

Toy manufacturers regularly label many wares as suitable only for children above age 3, precisely because of the choking danger.

New mandatory labeling requirements went into effect last year, enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, along with tougher standards for toys for use by younger children. But the commission doesn't label foods as potential hazards to toddlers. That's a safety judgment left to parents and other child caregivers, a continuing responsibility.

The casual lapse can prove tragically fatal, as it did to a three-year-old Glen Burnie boy who choked to death on a hot dog given him by a grandmother at a Chesapeake High basketball game this month. Even though two police officers on the scene radioed for help, and emergency squads arrived within 10 minutes of the call, they were unable to resuscitate the boy.

Each year, about 100 young children fatally choke on food that lodges in their airways, causing asphyxiation. Hot dogs are near the top of the list of culprits, along with whole grapes, hard candy, nuts and "bite-size" foods.

The standard hot dog is, in fact, the perfect plug for the toddler's windpipe: the smooth slick surface, cylindrical shape, and LTC compressible texture can fill and expand to quickly cut off breathing. It snugly fits the width and diameter of the youngster's breathing tube, and is difficult for rescuers to dislodge.

No wonder that professionals in child safety do not recommend hot dogs as a child's food. One common precaution is to cut the frankfurter lengthwise and then into manageable pieces. That minimizes the chance of sticking in the air passageway; cutting it in halves or quarters still leaves the potential hazard of a cylindrical plug.

Efforts to get meat processors to change the shape of the hot dog to a flatter (safer) design have been unsuccessful, even though the hazard also exists, to lesser degree, for older children and adults. For now, the best prevention is to avoid serving this quintessential American food to little ones, or to scrupulously cut up the sausage to reduce the danger.

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