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Two new child fatalities caused by lamp oils!

07/2004, 14.07.2004

BfR in favour of extending its ban on sale to clear and non-perfumed products

Despite repeated warnings and a series of risk-reducing measures, there have been two new infant fatalities in conjunction with lamp oil. Both had ingested small amounts of paraffin-containing, clear and non-perfumed lamp oils. One child had drunk from a garden torch container, the other probably had sucked the wick of an oil lamp. Both children died despite intensive medical efforts. Because of their special hazard potential, the then Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine, BgVV, had already initiated a ban on the sale of coloured and perfumed, paraffin and petroleum-containing lamp oils in Germany in 1999. Since 2000 this ban has been in place throughout Europe. “This measure”, explained the President of BfR, Professor Andreas Hensel, “ is not enough in order to give small children sufficient protection. It should, therefore, be urgently examined whether the ban on sales should be extended to clear and non-perfumed products, too.” The Institute advises parents of infants against using lamp oils of this kind in the home.

Since 1990 a total of five child fatalities caused by paraffin and petroleum-containing lamp oils have been notified to the Institute. Other children suffered severe damage to their health. These products, therefore, rank amongst the most dangerous household chemicals for children aged between one and three years. The hazard potential stems from the special physical-chemical properties of these lamp oils. Swallowing even the smallest amount (less than one gram) can lead to the oils “creeping“ into the lungs and causing severe inflammation there, so-called “chemical lung inflammation ”. In these cases, medical assistance is often too late.

Since 1970 the number of inquiries about lamp oil intoxications received by the German poison control centres has risen steadily. In 1994 there were between 250 and 300 cases of “chemical lung inflammation” in infants in conjunction with the around 1,000 inquiries. It was not until the introduction of a series of preventive measures taken on the initiative of the predecessor institute to BfR (child-resistant closures, warnings, labelling with “R 65“ as “harmful“, ban on the sale of perfumed and coloured, paraffin- and petroleum-containing lamp oils to the consumer) that the number of notified cases with serious health damage decreased. This is confirmed by a study on intoxications involving lamp oils which was launched by BgVV in 2000 and continued by BfR.

In its assessment the Federal Institute comes to the conclusion that the number of notified cases of serious health damage and, more particularly, chemical lung inflammations has been reduced since the ban on coloured and perfumed lamp oils on a paraffin or petroleum base but that cases are still being notified. Some of them can be explained by the use of old stocks of coloured and perfumed lamp oils. BfR was, however, able to trace others straight back to clear and non-perfumed, paraffin or petroleum containing lamp oils which are not covered by the current ban.

In its latest risk assessment BfR, therefore, comes to the conclusion that these products constitute a considerable hazard potential, too. The Institute recommends extending the ban on sale to clear and non-perfumed lamp oils on a paraffin or petroleum base in order to sufficiently protect the health and life of infants.

Other, comparable preparations like, for instance, liquid grill lighters, petroleum or fire-breathing liquids constitute a health risk for the consumer. BfR, therefore, warns consumers to exercise caution here. These products should be kept away from children and stored out of their reach. The lamp oil substitutes placed on the market by industry (mostly on the basis of “biodiesel”) do not, by contrast, seem to carry any comparable health risks.

Important information for consumers:

If, despite all the precautionary measures, a child gains access to and drinks paraffin or petroleum-containing lamp oils or other liquid fuel, then the following applies:

  • Do not trigger vomiting!
    This may allow vomit and the oil to penetrate the lungs.
  • Contact a poison control centre immediately!
    Even in the case of very minor symptoms like immediate, persistent coughing the child must be taken to see a doctor or a clinic and kept under observation.


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