© 2023 NPR Illinois
The Capital's NPR Network Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Toddler’s Death Inspires Water Heater Legislation

faucet tap water
Kamil Kaczor
Flickr / CC-by 2.0

An Illinois toddler died nine years ago after suffering third degree burns from bathwater. The Illinois House last week approved legislation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The measure would require all new water heaters be equipped with a safety valve.

It was introduced in honor of Mikayla King. Her mother, Jennifer King, recounted the event to lawmakers last month.

“Sheets of skin were falling off of her legs,” King said. “The skin looked like a sock hanging from her foot. My sweet little 18-month-old baby girl had third degree burns from less than 3 seconds in the bath water.”

Mikayla spent two months in the hospital before she died. During that time, she underwent 19 surgeries. An infection caused her right leg to be amputated below the knee. She was on so many medications that the doctors put her on kidney dialysis. Eventually, her heart gave out.

The Kings temporarily lost custody of their remaining three children while the Department of Children and Family Services investigated Mikayla’s death. They determined it was an accident.

In 2011, the Kings filed a product-liability suit against Whirlpool, the manufacturer of their water heater.

During the trial, King said, experts testified that 2,000 people suffer severe scald injuries each year, despite the fact that safety technology has been available for more than 30 years.

But the safety feature was only offered on their high-end water heater models.

“I was so angry when I heard that the people most affected by these injuries are our most vulnerable: children, elderly and people with different abilities,” King said. “And they still made the choice to continue this practice which allows them to be hurt and worse.”

A police investigation found the bathwater that killed Mikayla reached 138 degrees. A Whirlpool engineer told the court they couldn’t tell what temperature the water heater was set to because of a phenomenon called stacking, which allows a 30 degree difference between the temperature set and how hot the water actually is.

The safety valve mandate in “Mikayla’s Law” would ensure tap water doesn’t exceed 120 degrees — hot enough to kill legionella bacteria, but not so hot it causes injury when touched.

King said it’s the equivalent of requiring seat belts in a car.

“Thousands upon thousands of people are injured every year because of scald burns that could be prevented by technology that has been around for 30 years — technology that does not cost much in comparison to the value of people’s lives or the millions of dollars in medical costs in each year to treat these scald injuries,” she said.

The legislation is House Bill 3427.