Ban slapped on decorative alcohol-fuelled burners after more than 100 injuries

Ethanol burner victim speaks out

A 28-year-old Perth woman supports a ban on ethanol burners after she suffered serious burns to her face and upper body.

If you're using a decorative alcohol-fuelled burner to liven up the atmosphere this Christmas, throw it out or return it for a refund.

NSW and Victoria are among six state and territory governments that have slapped a 60-day interim ban on the sale of portable, decorative burners after a string of fire incidents and injuries - some life-threatening. The burners can be filled with methylated spirits, ethanol or bio fuel.

Federal Small Business Minister Michael McCormack has issued a proposed ban notice, the precursor to a national interim ban.

A 28-year-old Perth woman suffered serious burns.
A 28-year-old Perth woman suffered serious burns. Photo: Consumer Protection WA

They say 113 people have been injured by these products in the past six years, including 34 in NSW. There have been 115 reported incidents in that period, but the actual figure is believed to be much higher.

"When this kind of burner is low on fuel, the flame can be difficult to see, and some injuries have occurred when consumers try to re-fuel a device that is in fact still alight," said NSW Fair Trading commissioner Rod Stowe.

"Another risk is people or pets knocking over a lit burner, causing a fire. Consumers are entitled to a refund from the business that sold it."

A 28-year-old Perth woman will be spending this Christmas in a full-head, fabric face mask, gloves and compression garments after she suffered serious burns at a friend's party in the suburb of Safety Bay two months ago.

Her friends had carefully followed the instructions on the label, cleaning it and ensuring it was dry before pouring the recommended fuel into the canister and lighting it.

"We sat down and a few minutes later there was kind of a crackling noise, a fireball kind of came out of where the candle was sitting, heading in my direction and it hit me, setting me on fire," she said.

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"Given it was fuel it just wouldn't go out no matter how much I kind of patted it down so I stopped, dropped and rolled ...  One of the other girls got a hose and eventually I was extinguished," she continued.

"My skin was still bubbling from the heat, I had skin falling off my hands, off my face."

She was in an induced coma and spent three weeks in the intensive care unit at Fiona Stanley Hospital before being transferred to its burns unit.

The Perth woman suffered very serious burns.
The Perth woman suffered very serious burns. Photo: Consumer Protection WA

Her doctor, the renowned burns specialist Fiona Wood, urged consumers to consider the dangers of using products such as lamps that require flammable liquid.

"When you're looking at something that improves the ambience of your environment and involves a naked flame and a flammable liquid, then you're in an environment where you have a significant fire risk a lot of the year," Professor Wood said.

"You have to stand back and really ask the question: Why?"

An example of a portable decorative ethanol burner.
An example of a portable decorative ethanol burner. 

The Perth incident was closely followed by another one in Queensland, where two people suffered burns.

Consumer Protection WA announced an interim ban on Tuesday. It was soon followed by NSW, Qld, Victorian, South Australian and ACT state and territory governments.

Mr Stowe said the interim ban means retailers and online traders, depending on which state they're based in, must take the banned products off their shelves or delete them from online catalogues and cease sales immediately.

The ban on portable decorative ethanol burners was announced in the busy Christmas shopping season.
The ban on portable decorative ethanol burners was announced in the busy Christmas shopping season. Photo: NSW Fair Trading

The maximum fines for selling banned products are $220,000 for individuals and $1.1 million for corporations.

While the interim ban is in place, the consumer watchdogs will conduct further investigations into whether the burners are safe and suitable for sale.

WA Commerce Minister Michael Mischin said the statistics were just the tip of the iceberg as he believes there have been many more incidents and injuries that haven't been reported.

Qld Acting Attorney-General Anthony Lynham has urged people to stop using them.

Consumer Affairs Victoria Director Simon Cohen said the number of injuries justified a product safety ban.

The interim ban only applies to portable or table-top alcohol-fuelled burners. It does not include fixed alcohol-fuelled fireplaces, products used in the heating or warming of food, or products with a power output of more than 4.5 kW.

In regards to the proposed ban notice, Mr McCormack said: "If it's determined that some products simply pose too great a risk to be on the market, we will act to protect consumers."

Businesses have until January 20, 2017, to request a conference with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission about the national interim ban.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is an interim ban? Bans can be placed on products and product-related services if there is a risk that they may cause serious injury, illness or death.

  • I've been using my alcohol burner for years, with no problems. Can I continue to use it? No, you should stop using it, even if you have been using it for a number of years.

  • What should I do with my burner? You should store it in a safe place and await further information. If you have your proof of purchase, request a full refund.

  • Can I get a refund? Under Australian Consumer Law, most products come with automatic guarantees the item will be of acceptable quality and safe, among other things. In most cases, if these products are determined to be unsafe and are permanently banned, you will be able to return the product to the retailer for a full refund.

  • I bought one as a Christmas gift. What should I do? Do not give it as a gift. You should take it back to the seller with the proof of purchase to get your money back or an exchange.

  • I have seen these products for sale at my local store, how do I report it? Call Fair Trading on 13 32 20 or lodge a complaint through the website.

(source: NSW Fair Trading)