I-TEAM | Burn risks with modern fabrics: What you need to know

Published: Sep. 12, 2022 at 6:41 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-TEAM can report good news in the case of burning victim Barrett McKim.

The 12-year-old is back home after spending 51 days in the JMS Burn Center due to a science experiment going horribly wrong.

Doctors say McKim has a long road to recovery as the burns continue to heal, but his family says they are just grateful to be back home in North Carolina together again.

Now, they tell the I-TEAM that they hope some of the lessons they’ve learned in the process can help save others from the same kind of pain.

“He comes running out (tears up) on fire, and his whole body is on fire…. I tried to get him down on the floor to get him to roll, and it would not go out.” Recalls his mother, Caroline McKim.

After a science experiment with rubbing alcohol exploded, Barrett sustained second and third-degree burns to half of his body. But, doctors say, the burns were far worse on his torso because of the shirt he was wearing.

Our I-TEAM spoke to the experts about modern fabrics and what you need to know about burn risks.

“At this point (he) was just asking me, am I going to die? Am I going to die? Mommy, tell me the truth; am I going to die?”

Caroline recalls the worst minutes of her life hearing words no mother should have to from her child.

The truth is Barrett would survive. But the reality of how serious his injuries would be, and the pain of recovery, wasn’t something they could fully grasp.

“His polyester shirt disintegrated, it was completely engulfed in flames, and that’s where he has had the most severe parts of his burn.”

One reason Caroline could not get the shirt off was that it was literally melting on his body.

The Bunson Burner ignited a bottle of rubbing alcohol nearby, which was part of the experiment and it exploded.

“Let me tell you the difference. The alcohol went all over him. Completely all over him. He had on a polyester shirt and cotton shorts. His legs were the least burnt part of his body,” explains Caroline.

“His cotton shorts were still mostly intact which saved a lot of his skin down there.”

Our I-TEAM put the two fabrics to the test. We called in the Belvedere Fire Department to help. We tested one shirt that was 100% cotton.

It caught fire pretty quickly, but the fabric chars and the flames are gone.

Next, we ignited the polyester shirt. It’s much slower than cotton to catch fire, but the fabric reacts much differently.

“It melts instantly instead of charring like most fabrics - it just melts.” Explains Belvedere Fire Chief Chad Hyler.

Lastly, we sprinkled the polyester shirt with an accelerant: rubbing alcohol.

You can imagine what that molten, melted fabric—could do to your skin.

“You usually light something, it chars, and it goes away. But these different blends, like polyester, they melt. It’s pretty much instantaneously becoming a glob of toxic goop.” Says Chief Hyler.

Most synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, or acrylic do resist ignition. But, once ignited, the burns the melted materials can cause are extremely severe.

“Stop, drop and roll. I mean you’re rolling in molten lava-type material, that’s just sticking to your body. You pull it off, and you’re pulling off your skin, unfortunately,” he said.

Our I-TEAM found OSHA has weighed in on synthetic fabrics creating rules prohibiting employees “exposed to hazards from flames or electric arcs’ form wearing clothing ‘that could melt onto…skin or that could ignite and continue to burn when exposed to flames or heat energy…’ The statute goes on to specifically warn against ‘acetate, nylon, polyester, rayon, polypropylene, either alone or in blends.”

And depending on what activity you’re doing, many of these synthetic fabrics are made of plastics. So, it doesn’t have to be direct exposure to a flame for it to melt.

Chief Hyler’s friend in the military learned first-hand with polyester gym shorts under his fatigues.

“He was involved in a fire-type explosion. The heat melted those pants underneath the actual trousers that he had. It just shows you that the melting point is so low on these materials, they can instantaneously melt and adhere to your body.”

Performance fabrics can be great for breathability for workouts, but if you’re going to be in a risky environment around accelerants like gasoline at a bonfire, or maybe your child has a science experiment at school coming up, the McKimm’s want you to be aware of the possibilities.

“Our kids are getting a whole new wardrobe.”