I Learned the Hard Way Why Cheap Halloween Costumes Are So Dangerous

Image Source: Louis Quail
Image Source: Louis Quail

Halloween is my favorite holiday of the entire year, and although it is months away yet, this week it has been prevalent in the UK’s news.

Claudia Winkleman, the host of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (the UK equivalent of Dancing with the Stars) has spoken out about the dangers of Halloween costumes after her 8-year-old daughter Matilda was burned last year in a horrific accident. One minute her daughter was with a group of friends trick-or-treating on the steps of a house, and the next she was engulfed in flames.

Winkleman described the terrifying moment:

“She went up, is the only way I know how to describe it … it was a spark and she screamed out for me. It was like those horrific birthday candles that you blow out and then they come back … it was really fast … it wasn’t fire like I’d seen. We couldn’t put her out. Her tights had melted into her skin.”

It was only the quick thinking of her neighbor Jamie Poulton that saved the day. He told the Daily Mail: ‘There were about 10 children crowded together on the steps outside this house. It was like a bomb going off, everyone went crazy, screaming and panicking. I saw Matilda and saw that outfit crackling in flames and thought: ‘All of the kids are going to go up in a ball of fire.'” Of the material that was on fire, he said, “The material kept re-igniting. I’d put it out in one place then it would flare up in another. It was sticking to my hands, sticking to everything — sticking to her. It was like hot, black molten plastic.” Jamie suffered second-degree burns and Matilda suffered life-changing injuries.

BBC’s Watchdog, an investigative TV show for consumers, conducted an experiment on the same sorts of children’s Halloween costumes and showed how the dresses would melt and burn depending on what kind of material they were made of. The more frilly, thin dresses burned at a faster and more intensive pace, while the heavier fabrics burned more slowly and eventually went out. Watchdog revealed the shocking news that all the costumes the expert burned were marked “safe for sale” in the UK because all of them had passed a flammability test required by law and given the CE mark.

A reporter interviewing Winkleman explained:

“The test in question is known as EN71. A naked flame is applied to a piece of fabric from each garment for 10 seconds. If it burns quicker than 3cm per second, it fails and can’t be sold anywhere in Europe, yet this can’t be stringent enough for fancy dress costumes because all three that we set fire to were subjected to these criteria and passed.”

So why are such flammable materials sold in the UK as fancy dress costumes?

Because the EN71 test was designed to test TOYS and not clothes. In UK law, children’s costumes are classified as things that are played with and not worn. Shocking, isn’t it? Accidents of a similar nature have also happened in the U.S., causing at least one death. An ABC News report shows just how flammable the materials can be, and with children more interested in gathering candy than watching where their flowing capes, sleeves, and gowns are going, it could only take a split second for a costume to be ignited by a single Jack-o’-lantern candle.

The reason why I feel so passionately about spreading the word on this issue is because this very thing happened to me, or rather my 3-year-old daughter, last year.

As I said, Halloween is a big deal in our house. Every year I have a major party for adults and kids alike and last year was my biggest yet. The house was decorated inside and out, with a huge skeleton hanging outside. My husband had given 14 kids a lit sparkler each and they all gathered in the front of our house for a photo. My son was wearing a skeleton costume, including a complete over-the-head mask that had no eye holes — only some thin material for him to see through. He unwittingly let his sparkler briefly catch my daughter’s bat cape and within seconds she was on fire.

I heard Riley scream, “Mummy, Mummy it’s hot. Ow, ow, ow!”

I dashed over and my husband wrenched the cape from her neck. For a second, I thought she had been burned as she had a huge red welt on her neck. But it turned out that was from where my husband had yanked the cape roughly off her. Her T-shirt was flecked with gray smoldering bits, and I yanked it and her vest off her head. Her bare skin felt hot, but mercifully not damaged in any way.

We put a jumper on her, calmed her down, and resumed the trick-or-treating. My son Finn was distraught at the thought that he had hurt her; he was sobbing and the mood of the party temporarily nose-dived. Because I had 20 or so people there and 14 kids desperate to trick-or-treat, the party continued on, but my hands were shaking. I crept into the kitchen, lifted open the trash, and I laid out her cape. There was a burnt hole in it the size of my head. It just MELTED within seconds. The plastic was the most flammable thing I had ever seen. Luckily my husband had saved the day — I dare not think about what could have happened.

Halloween is meant to be a time for fun and celebration, but there are things we need to know to keep our kids safe. Not only should we beware of these highly flammable cheap costumes (I’m now dedicated to making handmade ones here on out), but we should make sure that our kids are very aware of the naked flames all around them on house steps, porches, and window ledges. Ideally we should try to steer clear of any costumes that have billowing skirts or flowing sleeves that could so easily catch light without a child realizing it for a matter of time.

I can’t look at photos of that evening without thinking of what could have been. I urge parents not to buy these cheap costumes — they’re simply accidents waiting to happen.

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