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Boston firefighter urges people to research risks of moisturising emollient creams in fires following death of man

A firefighter is warning people about the dangers of moisturising cream after it accelerated a blaze in which a man died.

Peter Walker, 61, died after a fire started at his home in Boston. He was found with 80% burns to his body and was taken to Boston Pilgrim Hospital where he later died.

At an inquest into his death it was concluded that Mr Walker had most likely spilled lighter fluid, which was ignited by a naked flame and spread through clothing or bedding. The inquest heard it was accelerated by the use of emollient cream – which according to the NHS are used to manage dry or itchy skin conditions, and can either be prescribed or found in over-the-counter products like E45.

Boston station manager Mark Housam.
Boston station manager Mark Housam.

In an inquest held at Boston Coroners Court, coroner Paul Cooper recorded a verdict of an accident for Mr Walker’s death.

The post-mortem examination revealed that Mr Walker had “fatal levels” of prescribed medication in his system, which the toxicologist said would have led to his death if the fire had not broken out.

Boston Fire Station manager Mark Housam, who gave evidence at the inquest on January 3, is now urging people to research the dangers of emollient creams and fires.

Boston Coroners Court. Photo: Google Maps
Boston Coroners Court. Photo: Google Maps

Mr Housam told LincsOnline: “The emollient is there to help patients, especially prescribed emollients.

“A lot contain paraffin and there’s a lot of emollients that don’t contain paraffin and other products that are combustible.

“When they get to a certain heat they will ignite, but they are no different to paper or cardboard.

“However, it’s the effect that the emollient can have on a piece of fabric, for example bedding or clothing, when a naked flame is introduced to it.

“So the emollient cream is there to help the patient and help them heal and it’s not going to just pop up and explode. That’s an absolute myth.

“But it’s the contributing factor and such it is with this case, it wasn’t the cause of the fire.

“So if you’ve got a jumper on without any emollient on it, it may take five seconds to ignite, but with emollient on it, it will set alight much quicker.

“So this is what we’re trying to do, to highlight and work alongside the likes of the NHS and National Fire Chiefs Council to say what the risks are.”

The incident happened on April 25, 2023. The alarm was first raised by Mr Walker’s wife, who had fallen asleep on the sofa and was woken up by the fire alarm.

She ran upstairs to her husband’s bedroom where she could see smoke coming from under the door. She was able to open the door but couldn’t get to him, with Mr Housam telling the inquest she “put her own life at risk”.

She raced back downstairs, falling on the stairs and injuring her leg, before she alerted a neighbour who rang 999.

Firefighters arrived and rescued Mr Walker - who had only a “few fragments of charred clothing around his waist” - and his wife, who had gone back into the house.

Despite the efforts of hospital staff, Mr Walker suffered three cardiac arrests in hospital before he died.

The inquest heard Mr Walker suffered with several health problems, including vascular dementia, which he had to take several medications for.

In the inquest, it was said Mr Walker was a “frequent user” of emollient creams which he regularly applied to his skin.

It was also said he was a regular smoker as he smoked about 20 cigarettes a day and he used a refillable lighter.

Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue use the SHERMAN Campaign, which highlights seven factors that put people at greater risk of having a fire.

These factors include smoking, hoarder, elderly or lives alone, reduced mobility, mental health issues, alcohol misuse or drugs/medication dependence and needs care or support.

Mr Housam told LincsOnline after the inquest that Mr Walker “ticked quite a few of these boxes”, because he was a smoker, needed care from his wife and had reduced mobility and access to medications.

“With every one of those boxes ticked, the risk goes up,” said Mr Housam.

Mr Housam added: “What we’ve proved with research is that yes you can wash your clothing again and again, but it doesn’t remove all of the emollient.

“Obviously you still need to wash, but even by washing it doesn’t stop a fire.”

It is not clear how many fire incidents involve emollient cream as a contributing factor as the fire service records the main cause, what was ignited first and what it led to.

“That’s part of the work through the research and progression and the work with the National Fire Chief’s Council which is something we are trying to get better figures on to highlight the dangers,” said Mr Housam.

He believes that there needs to be more education about the dangers of these creams to prevent a tragic incident like this happening again.

He said: “People use emollients because they need to protect their skin or help their skin condition.

“What we need to do is make sure they keep using them in the safest way possible and help them to understand the risks.

“So if they do smoke, do live alone, if they’ve got reduced mobility or mental health issues or are dependent or anything that the risks will increase and so, can they seek help or come up with solutions to try and help them.

“There is a lot of research going into it as well which is something that will hopefully help contribute to getting some sort of education out there as well.”

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