Plastic bag suffocation warnings
Most plastic bags on retail consumer products display a warning label to warn about the dangers of plastic bags to small children. However, the legal status of such warnings is complex.
The hazard which such warnings are trying to protect against is one of suffocation of small children. Suffocation can take place either because the child places a bag over their head, or because the plastic is flexible enough to form an airtight seal around their nose and mouth. This latter hazard is a particular risk to infants who are unable to support themselves. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, deaths have occurred where cot mattresses have been left wrapped in thin plastic bags or sheet when the child has been put on them.
Factors which affect the risk to children are the size of the bag opening, the type of closure which the bag has (i.e. drawstrings are more dangerous than other types of closure), the thickness of the material and whether or not it has any perforations.
There is no legal requirement for child warning labelling on plastic bags in Europe. However, warnings usually a condition of supply for most large retailers so in practice nearly all products sold have such warnings on the bags they are contained in.
Advice from Standards
Toys, and packaging associated with toys, are required to comply with the Toy Safety Directive and the risk of suffocation from plastic bags and sheets is recognised by the harmonised standard, EN 71-1. Bags larger than 380mm opening circumference and having a drawstring closure must be made of a material which is permeable to air. Flexible plastic sheeting (which would include bags used for packaging) must be thicker than 0.038 mm if over a certain size.
EN 71 contains no requirement for warning markings - instead the approach is to make the bags safe to small children (who clearly cannot read anyway!).
BS 1133-21 contains a specification and recommended wording for a warning notice on bags and describes the criteria for the conditions under which it should be applied. However, the standard is not primarily concerned with the safety of products and is not a complete specification for bags with warnings and perforations.
Plastic bag specification
In the absence of a coherent standard for warnings and perforations, Conformance Ltd have prepared a specification which we believe will ensure compliance with the supply requirements of most major retailers in the UK. While it is not directly compatible with the requirements of the two standards mentioned above, nevertheless if it is properly applied it will ensure compliance with these standards. Click to download the plastic bag specification.
Warnings on plastic bags are mandatory in some other territories worldwide. The following links provide additional information and resources;
USA/Canada - Packaging Law.com - The on-line resource for packaging law
USA - aroundthecapitol.com - california laws/codes regarding plastic packaging materials
USA - plasticbag.com - Plastic bag warning labels update
Canada - canlii.org - Canadian Legal Information Institute, Hazardous Products (Toys) Regulations
USA - plasticsindustry.org - The society of the Plastics Industry (dry cleaner bags information)
USA - deps.washington.edu/hiprc - Harbourview Injury Prevention & Research Center (Choking, Aspiration, and Suffocation Interventions