Refrigerator death

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An older refrigerator with a closing latch and a “newer” version which closes magnetically

A refrigerator death is death by suffocation in a refrigerator or other air-tight appliance. Because, by design, such appliances are air-tight when closed, a person entrapped inside will have a low supply of oxygen. Early refrigerators could only be opened from the outside, making accidental entrapment a possibility, particularly of children playing with discarded appliances; many such deaths have been recorded.[1][2] Modern designs close with a magnetic mechanism that can be opened from the inside, reducing the danger of accidental entrapment.


The original "refrigerator" was a household appliance that kept food cold using blocks of ice; now called the "icebox", these cabinets became popular in the 1800s and early 1900s. The first modern electrical refrigerator to see widespread use was the General Electric "Monitor-Top" refrigerator, introduced in 1927, and refrigerators became common in the United States in the 1930s. Regardless of the cooling technology, doors on the units were sealed shut using a mechanical latch.[3] After World War II when production of refrigerators resumed, old refrigerators were often disposed of. By the mid-1950s, deaths were not uncommon for children in the United States.[3][4][5] For example, statistics for the 18 months from January 1954 to June 1956 show that 54 children were known to have been trapped in household refrigerators, and that 39 of them died.[6] As the issue rose in prominence, people were asked not to abandon refrigerators and to detach the doors of unused refrigerators. At least one state, Oklahoma, enacted legislation making the abandonment of a refrigerator with a latch in a location where a child might find it illegal.[7] At least as early as 1954, alternative methods of securing air-tight closures had been suggested, such as in patent 2767011, filed by Francis P. Buckley et al. in 1954 and issued in 1956.[8] Starting in the mid-1950s, volunteers and health inspectors[3] searched out abandoned refrigerators in order to detach doors and break latches. However, these efforts were not entirely effective and children still died inside refrigerators that had not been found and dismantled.

The Refrigerator Safety Act in 1956 was a U.S. law that required a change in the way refrigerator doors stay shut. It was codified at 15 U.S.C. 1211–1214 as Public Law 84-930, 70 Stat. 953, on 2 August 1956.[9] The act applied to all refrigerators manufactured in the United States after 31 October 1958, and is largely responsible for the adoption of the magnetic mechanism that is used today instead of a latch.[3] Individual American states also have similar laws, such as California[10] and Washington.[11] Around the world, manufacture of latch refrigerators has been replaced by that of ones with magnet-closing doors.

The number of U.S. and Canadian deaths due to suffocation in refrigerators declined a significant amount in the years following federal legislation.[1][12][13] A 1985 study of suffocation deaths in the United States showed a sharp decline in the early 1960s, followed by a plateau and gradual decline to the early 1980s.[1] The Refrigerator Safety Act was a factor in the decline,[1] in combination with other factors such as "reduced exposure and increased parental supervision".[13]

Entrapment hazards[edit]

Hazardous items for refrigerator deaths are "places with a poor air supply, a heavy lid or a self-latching door".[13] Children playing games – such as hide and seek – may crawl inside a small secret place, such as an appliance, and become trapped.[2] The water-tight or air-tight seal prevents them from getting air, and the appliance's noise insulation prevents their screams from being heard.[14] Suffocation follows.[15]

Apart from refrigerators and similar equipment such as iceboxes, freezers, and coolers, equipment such as clothes washers, dryers, and toy chests can also put children at risk of refrigerator death.[2][13][14][15]

Modern examples[edit]

  • 2013: Three South African children died after becoming locked in an abandoned refrigerator.[16]
  • 2014: Two sisters died in Novgorod Oblast, Russia, when they hid in their grandmother's refrigerator.[17]
  • 2019: Two siblings and a friend – ages 1, 4, and 6 – died after climbing inside a chest freezer that was sitting, unused and unplugged, in their family's yard in Florida, United States. A hasp for a padlock had been installed, but the unit was not locked. After the children climbed inside, the lid fell and the hasp engaged, which prevented them from getting out.[18][19][20]
  • 2019: Two brothers in Kyrgyzstan – ages 4 and 6 – died while playing hide and seek, when they became trapped in an abandoned refrigerator that had been built with an "automatic locking system.... The type of fridge was particularly popular in the Soviet era and was specially built so that it could not be opened from the inside."[21]


Product design can be used to mitigate risk.[22] An example is substitution of magnetic strips for sealing doors, instead of latches. In addition, appliances should be recalled when a danger is identified.[23]

Public education is effective.[22][24] Education programs may include public service announcements, pamphlets,[14] advertisements in magazines and newspapers, articles in newspapers,[25] and school-based programming to educate children.[22] One such example is a 1971 public information film shown in the United Kingdom called 'Children and Disused Fridges',[26] which became well known due to its frightening message.[27] A Canadian study showed that the most effective safety education was "targeted, simple, action-oriented messaging" especially when "combined with strategies to change behaviour."[13] Common education campaigns focus on parent awareness and reminding owners that appliance doors should be removed before discarding.[14]

Parents or caregivers can lessen the risks of refrigerator deaths. Spaces can be made safer by childproofing against entrapment, such as using a refrigerator bar or lock to prevent access to appliances.[22][28] Doors that lead to spaces containing dangerous equipment, such as utility rooms and campers, should be kept closed and locked.[14] Proper supervision of children will also reduce opportunities for entrapment.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Kraus, JF (1985). "Effectiveness of measures to prevent unintentional deaths of infants and children from suffocation and strangulation". Public Health Reports. 100 (2): 231–240. PMC 1424727. PMID 3920722.
  2. ^ a b c Spitz, Werner U., ed. (1993). Spitz and Fisher's Medicolegal Investigation of Death: Guidelines for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigation (Third ed.). Springfield, Illinois: Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd. p. 486.
  3. ^ a b c d Adams, Cecil (4 March 2005), "Is it impossible to open a refrigerator door from the inside?", The Straight Dope
  4. ^ Schotz, Andrew (15 February 2011). "Parrott proposes change to refrigerator law". Herald-Mail. Annapolis, Maryland.
  5. ^ Steve (17 March 2011). "How A Refrigerator Can Kill You". The Refrigerator and Fridge Freezer Site. Fridge Freezer Site.
  6. ^ Roberts, Kenneth A. (25 June 1956), "Safety Devices for Household Refrigerators: Extension of Remarks of Hon. Kenneth A. Roberts of Alabama in the House of Representatives, Monday, June 25, 1956", Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 84th Congress ─ Appendix, United States Government Publishing Office, p. A5101
  7. ^ "21 O.S. § 1208: Title 21. Crimes and Punishments, Chapter 48 – Miscellaneous and General Provisions, Section 1208 – Abandonment of Refrigerator or Icebox in Place Accessible to Children a Misdemeanor", Oklahoma Statutes, Oklahoma State Courts, 2 June 1955
  8. ^ Buckley, Francis P. (16 October 1956), Patent US2767011 A: REFRIGERATOR LATCH MECHANISM, United States Patent Office
  9. ^ "REFRIGERATOR SAFETY ACT (Codified at 15 U.S.C. 1211–1214) (Public Law 84-930, 70 Stat. 953, August 2, 1956)" (PDF), United States Code, United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2 August 1956
  10. ^ "California Penal Code Section 402b", California Penal Code, State of California, 9 September 2016
  11. ^ RCW 9.03.010: Abandoning, discarding refrigeration equipment, Washington State Legislature, n.d.
  12. ^ "Choking, Aspiration, and Suffocation Interventions", Best Practices, Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center, University of Washington School of Social Work, archived from the original on 9 May 2004
  13. ^ a b c d e "Position statement: Preventing choking and suffocation in children". Canadian Paediatric Society. 1 January 2020. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  14. ^ a b c d e Freezer, Dryer, Cooler and Refrigerator Entrapment Deaths to Children (Publication 5073 009611 032012) (PDF), U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 12 March 2012, retrieved 9 March 2020
  15. ^ a b c Suffocation, Choking and Strangulation: Fact Sheet, The National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention, n.d., retrieved 9 March 2020
  16. ^ Presse, Agence France (14 September 2013). "3 Children Die From Suffocation After Getting Stuck in Refrigerator in South Africa". Retrieved 1 January 2018 – via Huff Post.
  17. ^ Mackay, Don (18 July 2014). "Two girls die after shutting themselves in FRIDGE as game goes tragically wrong: The cousins, aged four and six, shut themselves inside the fridge and were unable to get out". The Mirror. MGN Limited.
  18. ^ Lashway, Zachery; Luter, Carianne (15 January 2019). "Sheriff: 3 children trapped in freezer in Suwannee County die". WJXT News4Jax. Live Oak, Florida. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  19. ^ CBS, Tallahassee Florida (15 January 2019). "Three Children Dead After Getting Trapped in Refrigerator in Florida". Retrieved 8 February 2019 – via CBS News.
  20. ^ Bever, Lindsey (15 January 2019). "Three children were playing in an unplugged freezer. Then, police say, there was 'a real tragic accident.'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  21. ^ Pritha, Paul (13 June 2019). "Brothers Get Locked in Fridge Playing Hide And Seek, Suffocate To Death". International Business Times. IBTimes LLC. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  22. ^ a b c d Child Safety Good Practice Guide: Good investments in unintentional child injury prevention and safety promotion (PDF), Amsterdam, the Netherlands: European Child Safety Alliance, June 2006, ISBN 978-90-6788-318-4, retrieved 9 March 2020
  23. ^ "Old home freezers recalled: Industry group seeks up to 9M chest freezers to prevent child entrapment". New York City: CNN. 24 October 2000. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  24. ^ Hatch, Jennifer K. (9 June 1994). "Education urged to end fridge deaths". Deseret News.
  25. ^ Harding, Ashley; Chen, Crystal (15 January 2019). "Safety alert: Childproofing household appliances to prevent deadly accident ─ How to avoid freezer, dryer, cooler and refrigerator entrapment". WJXT News4Jax. Jacksonville, Florida. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  26. ^ Children and Disused Fridges. The Central Office of Information for Home Office. 10 May 1971. Retrieved 1 August 2020. This public information film is concerned with the problem of children being suffocated in old fridges that, tempted by their playful imaginations, they want to climb into. The danger today has been largely eliminated by the introduction of magnetic seals instead of locks.{{cite AV media}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  27. ^ "Fridge fear". BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. 23 February 2006. Retrieved 1 August 2020.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  28. ^ Miller, Jess (28 June 2014). "How to baby proof your refrigerator". Parent.Guide. Retrieved 9 March 2020.

Further reading[edit]