RoSPA's guidelines when using Chinese lanterns are:
- Do not launch a lantern if any part of it is damaged
- Follow operating instructions very carefully and have a fire extinguisher or water nearby
- A lantern is not suitable for children under 16 and is not a toy – it should be launched by two adults
- Do not launch under the influence of alcohol
- A lantern should not be launched if winds are 5mph or more
- Do not launch within 5 miles of any airfield, airport or near the coast where lanterns may be interpreted as a distress signal
- Do not use near built-up areas, roads, crops, hay bales, trees or power lines.
Sky lanterns, also known as Chinese lanterns, are thought to bring good luck and prosperity to those releasing them - but concerns have been raised by maritime authorities that lanterns released near the coast and drifting out to sea have been mistaken for distress flares.
In July 2010 a sighting of a suspected distress flare was investigated between Bexhill and Pevensey. On investigation it was recognised as a Chinese lantern. All sightings of red flares, which are sent up by boats in distress, are investigated by local coastguard volunteers. False alarms are a waste of valuable resources which could also put others in danger.
For these reasons coastguards ask that anyone releasing lanterns near to the coast alert them beforehand so to avoid any confusion if possible. With budget cuts everywhere, public services such as the coastguard cannot afford to waste resources pursuing false call outs. RoSPA urges everyone using these items to consider their responsibilities in these respects.
As lanterns are a relatively recent phenomenon in the UK there is limited evidence of incidents that may have been caused by them. However, they are fast becoming a popular addition to weddings and parties, and in the middle of wedding season and around Bonfire Night the number of incidents is likely to increase.
Research has found that high quality lanterns, when used according to instructions, were generally safe in relation to fire risks; but, there are many poor quality lanterns which lack sufficient safety and operating instructions. A recent survey carried out by BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and trading standards services throughout the UK found incidents where property (e.g. fences, garden furniture, roofs, hedges) had been either damaged or destroyed, or where the lanterns had caused death or injury to livestock.
Non-biodegradable lanterns often include metal parts which upon descent are discarded into the surrounding countryside. If not noticed by farmers, those parts of the lantern may end up in livestock silage or feed which, when ingested, can cause considerable and sometimes fatal harm to livestock. There have been reports of incidents involving several cows and at least one horse.
At present BIS does not feel that a ban is necessary but hopes that retailers and importers in the UK will take the lead and demand that the lanterns they purchase from manufacturers are 100 per cent biodegradable (i.e. that they contain no metal wires); that they come with a high quality fuel source; and that they come with comprehensive operating and safety instructions.
Chinese lanterns are regulated by the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 which is enforced by Trading Standards Services across the UK. For more information about these products, the regulations or safe Bonfire Night procedures go to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy website, or visit our Firework Safety page.