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New microwaveable heat pack standard

A new joint Australian/New Zealand standard on microwaveable heat packs has just been published.

inistry of Business, Innovation and Employment Product Safety Analyst Brendon Noonan is a member of technical committee CS-113 which developed the standard for just over a year and says house fires and a fatality in Australia were the catalyst for the development of AS/NZS 5116:2016 Microwaveable heat packs – Wheat and other organic filling materials

‘In 2011, an elderly woman in Sydney died from smoke inhalation after a wheat bag in her bed ignited. At her inquest in 2013, the Coroner said more warnings were needed about the dangers of heated wheat bags and the Deputy Coroner recommended the development of a national standard.

‘It was believed the regular use of the wheat bag had dried out the grains, making them more likely to ignite when placed under bedding. There were also 31 fires caused by wheat bags in New South Wales between 2010 and 2012, 26 of which occurred while they were in the microwave.’

Brendon says the same risks exist in New Zealand and it was important to follow the manufacturer’s recommended heating time.

‘Homemade wheat bags can pose a greater fire and injury risk because the moisture content and volume of these bags is not known, and the proper heating time can’t be recommended.’

In the standard, the committee notes that 

‘Microwaveable heat packs (MHPs) are often perceived as being eco-friendly, safe and an inexpensive alternative to hot water bottles and they may be designed to look like toys to appeal to children. Their popularity has increased over time as they can be easily and cheaply made at home with few materials which are readily available in supermarkets and general stores, or purchased from a variety of retail outlets, at craft markets and online. 

Issues arise because many people are generally uninformed about how to use these products safely. MHPs may not carry appropriate warnings and instructions and people may not appreciate these products may catch fire or smoulder when overheated, and can quickly generate life threatening levels of smoke'. 

AS/NZS 5116 provides suppliers and manufacturers of microwaveable heat packs containing organic material such as wheat or lavender with requirements and test methods that will ensure these products perform in a predictable manner and that users are informed of their dangers. It also provides the user with safety warnings and instructions for use and maintenance of MHPs containing organic material to mitigate the risk of fire, smoke inhalation and contract burns, and its use will reduce the level of accidental injury, death and property loss arising from the design and improper use of MHPs. 

It is aimed at manufacturers, suppliers and users. It applies to wearable products, bags, pillows, children’s products and similar products that contain organic materials such as wheat, rice, legumes or herbs. It does not apply to heat packs filled with chemicals, synthetics, crystals, gels or liquids. Microwavable heat packs that meet the standard should provide the user with sufficient information to assure they can use these products confidently and safely. 

There is more information on wheat bags on the Consumer Protection website.(external link)