CHICAGO — On a June day last year, 3-year-old Jolan Jackson was sitting at the dining room table in his booster chair waiting for his meal.
Having just boiled a cup of water in the microwave, Jolan’s teenage sister poured the hot liquid into a Cup Noodle foam container and placed it on the table, according to a complaint filed in March against the maker of the soup in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
In the next few minutes, the soup cup somehow tipped over, spilling its hot contents onto Jolan’s lap and leaving him with second and third-degree burns that required 15 days in the hospital and months of follow-up surgeries, the complaint said.
“He was in tremendous pain,” said Jolan’s mother, Latisha Beam. “By the time I got to the hospital he was on a morphine drip and the skin had peeled and rolled off so that it was just pink and raw.”
Scaldings are the most common burns suffered by children admitted to hospitals and burn units across the nation, according to national burn statistics. And although some children are scalded by boiling pots on the stove or overly hot tap water, physicians report that many others are injured by soup, including the kind made in disposable foam cups.
Roughly 30 to 40 percent of the kids treated for burns at Stroger Hospital “are there for hot soup scaldings,” said hospital spokesman Marisa Kollias. Another analysis of burns at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California found that soup burns caused about 8 percent of all burn admissions.
Either estimate suggests that soup scalds thousands of children nationwide each year, with an estimated 30,000 people younger than 20 treated for scalds of all types each year, according to a 2010 epidemiological review published in the Pediatric Annals.
Some scientists, doctors, victims, and advocates say this kind of injury would occur less often if the makers of instant soups used a safer cup. Certain containers are more likely to tip over than others, according to a 2006 analysis in the Journal of Burn Care & Research by Dr. David Greenhalgh, professor and chief of burn surgery at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine.
Of the 11 instant soup cups tested by Dr. Greenhalgh and his colleagues, Cup Noodles tied for the second most tip-prone design because of its height and narrow base. Researchers measured its tipping point at about 21 degrees; the least tip-prone container tipped at about 64 degrees.
“The most significant contributor to the ease of tipping over was height,” the paper said. “Simple redesigning of instant soup packaging with a wider base and shorter height, along with the requirement for warnings about the risks of burns, would reduce the frequency of soup burns.”
Nissin Foods, the maker of Cup Noodles (formerly called Cup O’ Noodles), said its products carry prominent labels warning consumers to handle the hot soup with care, especially when serving it to children.
“Our hearts go out to children and families who have suffered burns of any type,” said the statement from Nissin, whose American headquarters is just outside Los Angeles in Rosemead, Calif. “We urge parents to never leave hot products of any kind in reach of their young children.”
The Jackson family’s complaint against the company acknowledges that the package included warnings about putting the cup in the microwave, the potentially high heat, and the need to handle with care. But it also alleges that the design of the cup is “unsafe for its intended use because of its dimensions, including an overly narrow base.”
The soup’s label, it said, did not sufficiently warn “of its unstable design that significantly increased the risk that the Cup Noodles would tip over and/or spill with the potential for causing severe burns.”
“It never entered my mind that noodle soup could do this degree of damage to a child,” said Ms. Beam, who works full time and attends nursing school at night. “But when I found out how many other children had been burned like this, I decided that I had to do something to get them to change their design. Because no child, and especially no 3-year-old, should have to suffer this degree of pain over a cup of noodles.”
Burn doctors say hot liquid burns are especially dangerous for the very young. “Children have thinner skin and greater susceptibility to burn injury,” said Loyola University Medical Center burn specialist Dr. Richard Gamelli. “Also, if they are wearing footy pajamas or fleecy things or diapers, they can end up with significant burns because they hold the heat and fluid.”
Children can be more severely burned by noodle soups than other types because they retain more heat and the noodles can stick to the skin, doctors say.
University of Chicago researchers in 2011 examined an additional contributing factor: small children’s access to microwave ovens, where handling cups of sloshy soup can easily lead to an injury.
Marla Robinson, assistant director of inpatient therapy services at University of Chicago Medicine, and her colleagues found that all the 4-year-olds who participated in the study could reach, operate, and remove food from a microwave.
“Children as young as 17 months old can turn on a microwave, open the door, and remove items, putting them at significant risk for scald injuries,” said the University of Chicago report, published in the Journal of Trauma.
Ms. Robinson found that the hospital handled 24 cases of children burned by microwaved soup last year, up from nine in 2003. Arguing that it’s too easy for small children to access hot food from a microwave oven, the report recommended that microwaves be redesigned to be more child-resistant.
For now, Ms. Beam said, “these noodles are totally banned from my house.”