We are approaching that ghoulish time of year again, in which our streets come alive with rattling sweets and children’s shrills of ‘trick or treat’.
But whilst the children are focused on the playful horrors of Halloween, the frightening reality looms that our children’s fancy dress costumes may neither be fit for purpose nor safe for wear.
Surprisingly, fancy dress costumes on sale in the UK are not classified as ‘clothes’ but rather as ‘toys’.
Although seemingly an innocuous distinction, the classification means that fancy dress clothing is required only to be tested at a lower flammability level than the equivalent requirements for pyjamas or nightwear for example.
This is obviously absurd given that, unlike children’s hand-held toys, fancy dress costumes are physically attached to the body leaving no quick means of escape should the garments catch fire or malfunction.
The perils of this situation were highlighted in 2014 when the 8 year old daughter of the TV presenter and journalist Claudia Winkleman suffered severe burns after her £5 witches costume had brushed against a candle and burst into flames.
Obviously all toys must conform to safety regulations. Toys sold in the EU must comply with the plainly titled European Toy Safety Directive (enacted in the UK as the Toys (Safety) Regulations 2011).
If toys are found to be non-compliant with the Directive, the products will be removed from production and manufacturers will face prosecution and even imprisonment.
Despite the obvious deterrents of non-compliance, the fatal problem with these provisions is that they ignore the loop-hole through which children’s dressing up clothes are not being adequately tested.
The classification of fancy dress costumes as toys means that the products are subjected to far less rigorous safety tests than they would be as clothes.
Fancy dress clothes on sale in the UK must have passed a flammability test (known as an EN71-2 test) and been awarded a CE mark (to confirm conformance to EU legislation).
However, such clothing, or ‘toys’ are not necessarily fire proofed or retardant to the level that we would expect.
The EN71-2 test is not intended to test clothes but rather the flammability of toys, which burn a lot slower than fancy dress costumes.
Acknowledging the impracticality of requiring toys to be non-flammable, the tests used are based on a maximum ‘after flame time’ or a limited ‘rate of flame spread’, with the intention that a child would drop the toy before suffering serious injury.
The chilling effect of this on children in the UK is that they are allowed to wear fancy dress costumes which have a shocking burning rate of 3cm per second, compared to a burning rate of 3cm in 2.5 seconds for their nightwear counterparts (Nightwear (Safety) Regulations 1985).
A child’s Halloween costume is legally allowed to burn 2.5 times quicker than a similar piece of the same child’s clothing worn at night.
According to NHS figures, in 2014 a total of 94 people (21 children) were admitted to hospital in England as a result of their clothing burning. In that same year, there was a six-fold rise in the number of notifications sent to the European Commission requesting recalls of children’s fancy dress costumes due to flammability and chemical concerns.
It is important to note that retailers are not committing illegal acts by selling these products. This year alone Asda have had to recall a Horrible Histories Gladiator costume from it stores and Ikea have similarly recalled a bat cape costume due to safety fears of the products on children.
Notwithstanding the success of Claudia Winkleman’s campaign in publicising the issue, there has yet to be a change in the law.
Despite the outspoken support of a number of high profile MPs, the Consumer Protection (Standards of Fire Resistance of Children's Fancy Dress and Play Costumes Etc) Bill 2015-16 brought before Parliament on 1 December 2015 has disappointingly since been withdrawn and will not progress further.
However, in September 2015 Sajid Javid MP requested a nationwide investigation into the safety of children’s fancy dress costumes, which included Trading Standards carrying out spot checks on such products around the UK – the result of which have yet to be published.
We hope that legislation and awareness of this issue protects children from suffering avoidable harm.