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Armagh family’s warning to others after ‘wheat bag’ catches fire in microwave

An Armagh mother has urged people to be aware of the potential hazards of using ‘wheat’ filled products after one caught fire in her home.

The personal warming items, designed to be heated in the microwave, have been sold widely in the shops for years, but investigations have shown they have been responsible for hundreds of fires in homes and even resulted in fatalities.

The woman told Armagh I: “My daughter placed a wheat filled body warmer (similar to that pictured here) in the microwave for the recommended time of two minutes.

“She then decided to take a shower, knowing the microwave would stop after the selected time.”

But the main picture shows what she found – after the body warmer began to burn.

The teenager’s mum explained: “The house was so full of smoke that all rooms, bar two, have to be redecorated after a professional cleaning company was in.”

The products become even more widely used at this time of year as we approach winter and are particularly popular with young people and the elderly.

But people need to be alert to the dangers and never leave them unattended either during or after heating.

“My daughter is 18 and uses the wheat bag regularly, however, this was the first time she had left it in the microwave after the timer had stopped,” added the Armagh woman.

“We were very lucky that nobody was hurt and the house is still standing, but it could easily have been worse.”

After an inquest into the death in a house fire of a 79-year-old woman in West Yorkshire five years ago, the coroner had written an official letter in which he highlighted his own concerns over the dangers of wheat based products for microwaves.

He also requested that Chris Clarke, the lead investigator at West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, to find out why they were catching fire.

Quoted as part of an investigation carried out by the Daily Mail newspaper, Mr Clarke said: “We wanted to know why the wheat got to a point where it would ignite on its own for no reason

“We tested all sorts of different bags: some old, some brand new, increasing the temperature by half a degree every minute. We used a conventional microwave  oven, and the aim was to try to get the temperature up to 400c.

“It didn’t seem to matter how old the bags were or how much moisture was present – once the wheat reached a temperature of more than 225C there was what we call an ‘exothermic reaction’ – in other words, it continued to heat itself.

“A microwave’s energy creates ‘hot spots’, but most microwaves have a turntable that enables whatever is in there to heat evenly.

“If that turntable goes round, but the thing sitting on it is sufficiently big that it becomes wedged against the sides of the oven, then small parts will  be exposed to the maximum energy.

“If you look at a considerable number of these wheat bags, including ones that are shaped like teddy bears, they are too big for the average microwave.”

The fire investigator led two tests conducted in an 800-watt microwave – one had the item moving on the turntable of the microwave, but in the other the item was wedged and remained static and, in that case, it took only six minutes before it had heated to a frightening 349C.

“When we took it out, it was smouldering and the wheat kernels were visibly burning through the cotton bag,” Mr Clarke told the newspaper.

“If you insulate that heat under your duvet, it has nowhere to go – and that’s when you get the likelihood of a fire.”

The Daily Mail investigation also found that most wheat bag type products were not being properly labelled with warnings and instructions and many had information on the packaging which, with most people, is discarded when the item is removed for use.

The newspaper reported that there is a British Standard for ‘microwaveable personal warmers’ and wheat bags carrying this mark are required to have proper clear instructions for use, either printed on the product or on a label attached to it.

But the investigation also revealed that having the British Standard mark is voluntary, and not a statutory requirement, which means they can be produced and sold to the public without any proper safety testing.

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