Fire retardant chemicals: health hazard or a life saver?

Fire retardant chemicals: health hazard or a life saver?

Former civil servant and fire regulations expert Terry Edge says it's time people in the UK were told just what chemicals are in our furniture and given the option to buy non-FR products if we want

By Abby Trow
FR or no FR - let consumers choose

Dr Arlene Blum at the Green Science Policy Institute in California has worked to limit FR chemicals in US furniture, despite having to withstand formidable opposition from the powerful chemical industry. But in the UK, fire regs covering furniture that were introduced in 1988 have yet to be updated and former civil servant Terry Edge maintains we're being sold furniture that is dangerous to our health and far from fire-safe.

(This article is one of our in-depth long read features..so be prepared to scroll down!)

 

When you buy a sofa, chair or mattress, or indeed a pushchair for your child, do you think about the fire retardant chemicals in the product? More than likely such a thought never crosses your mind and if you do happen to notice the label saying ‘fire-resistant’ on it you may well enjoy peace of mind.
 
But more people are starting to question the need for furniture sold in the UK to be so heavily treated with flame retardant chemicals, some of which are highly toxic - particularly the brominated ones (BFRs) used to back-coat upholstery fabric; so toxic in fact that DecaBDE, the main BFR for furniture, been banned in the US and heavily restricted in the EU. But UK furniture bought within the past few years will contain high levels of DecaBDE.
 
House fires in the UK are, mercifully, rare and fires that start in furniture rarer still - in the case of the latter it’s fewer than 50 a year. 
 
The powerful global chemical industry argues that it’s FRs that have made furniture fires such a rarity; however health lobbyists, scientists and green campaigners point to two other factors which explain why sofa fires have become so rare: 
 
* far fewer people smoke in the UK (it’s around 20 per cent of the adult population compared to 75 per cent in the 1960s) and of those who do, they tend to smoke outside rather than in their homes.
 
* More than 90 per cent of UK homes have a fire alarm. 
 
These factors, says Terry Edge, a former civil servant at the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), now the Dept for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) mean it’s time to re-examine our furniture fire regulations, which were introduced in 1988 and haven’t been revised since. (Though BEIS does have a consultation document out for consideration by industry at the moment.)
 
Furniture burns quickly but house fires starting in furniture are fewer than 50 a year in the UK
The issue with furniture is particularly brominated flame retardants on cover fabrics
Terry Edge has been a key driver for change to our fire regs because for 12 years he was the lead civil servant on the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations (FFRs), and his extensive knowledge has led him to conclude that: 
 
* we’re being sold products billed as fire-safe when they’re not.
 
* we’re being sold products that are treated unnecessarily with very harmful chemicals, some of which are classed as neuro-toxic. 
 
‘I believe there is a case for giving people a choice of whether to buy furniture that’s chemically-treated or not, as happens in the US,’ says Edge. ‘You can make furniture fire-safe without using FR chemicals, though it would be more expensive to produce than cheaper products that are FR treated. But with the health issues around FR chemicals, people should have the information so they can make a choice.’
 
Edge says he was made aware of the risks to human health posed by FR chemicals after meeting environmental health scientist Dr Arlene Blum who set up the Green Science Policy Institute in California in 2008. 
 
She has devoted much of her career to taking on the chemical industry in the US and her research has resulted in changes to FR laws in the country and the banning of certain groups of FR chemicals from furniture and baby/children’s products.

‘Arlene’s work has shown how dangerous FR chemicals are,' says Edge. 'Very simply the chemicals break away from the foam or fabric and become part of the dust in the air. The particles settle on surfaces our homes and we touch them and ingest them. And in the case of a fire, they emit a toxic smoke.’

 
How FR chemicals are ingested - Green Science Policy Institute
The department is supposed to be re-examing our furniture fire regs
Why do we have FRs?
 
UK furniture fire regs were introduced in 1988 in response to an increase in house fires attributed to furniture being filled with inexpensive and highly flammable polyeurethane foam. This foam is a potential fire hazard if not FR treated because it melts rapidly when heated and becomes a liquid, causing a fire to reach peak heat release within 2-3 minutes - the point at which a fire will ignite everything, so to speak.
 
So the government brought in the FFRs, which remain the toughest in the world and comprise three tests for flammability: - one for fillings (the CRIB 5 test you may have heard of) and a ‘match’ and ‘cigarette’ test for cover fabrics
 
And it’s the match test that Edge is particularly concerned with because he maintains until it’s changed, unsafe furniture will continue to be sold to consumers.
 
‘I’m not saying all chemicals should be banned from our furniture. The chemicals used to make foam less flammable are, on the whole, not too problematic regarding toxicity. 
 
‘But the match test and the cigarette test allowed the chemical industry to argue that cheap fabrics used to cover a piece of furniture should be back-coated with FRs and these tend to be brominated, which are known to be very dangerous to health.’
 
Since 1988 the match test has involved holding a match flame to a piece of fabric wrapped around foam that has NOT been FR treated. The flame is held against it for 20 seconds and to pass the test, any fire should have gone out within two minutes. With the cigarette test, any smoulder should have gone out within one hour if fabric is to pass as fire-safe. So in short, most fabrics will have to be back-coated with FRs if they’re to pass the match test, since they burn easily if you put a match to them.
 
Edge says this nearly 30-year-old match test simply does not achieve safe furniture and must be changed.
 
‘For a start, it’s ridiculous to test using foam that’s not FR treated, or combustion-modified as it’s known in the trade, because no UK furniture is made using untreated foam.  And the test doesn’t take into account that many furniture makers use a (usually polyester) fibre wrap layer between the fabric and the foam both for comfort and ease of construction. This layer makes furniture highly flammable because it’s not compressed so it creates a layer of air which would fan the flames in case of a fire.
 
‘The test doesn’t deal with the known industry problem of FR undertreatment. So to save money, fabric will be given a minimal coating of FRs which won’t stop the off-gassing but in the case of a fire, the FRs don’t do the job they’re supposed to.
 
‘The third issue is to do with Scotchgarding - that treatment you’re offered with new furniture that’s supposed to make it stain-resistant. Well, Scotchgard is made with silicon which is highly flammable, so what you’re doing with Scotchgard is adding back chemicals that make the furniture incredibly flammable. ...I would definitely advise people decline Scotchgard treatment.
 
New match test could reduce by half amount of FRs use on fabrics 
 
Edge worked with product safety test expert Steve Owen at independent test house Intertek to develop a new match test that would actually make furniture fire-safe but would mean many cover fabrics would no longer need to be back-coated with BFRs. It would also make a separate cigarette test unnecessary duplication.
 
‘This test would reduce FRs in cover fabrics by up to 50 per cent immediately, and probably to nothing in the longer run since the test allows for the use of new fibres and weaving technologies to ensure fire resistance,’ says Edge.  
 
The new test involves wrapping upholstery fabric around FR-treated foam covered with a polyester fibre wrap cover made to a set specification. The test closely replicates today’s furniture construction methods and because the foam filling is treated with FR chemicals, when the untreated fabric is ignited, the match flame goes out when it reaches the foam - because, says Edge, the FRs in the foam are doing their job.
 
Edge says the new test was itself rigorously tested over an 18-month period and to date no one has come forward with any technical objections or reasons why it doesn’t work: ‘We could be keeping huge quantities of FR chemicals out of fabrics used in the our furniture. 
 
‘The rest of the world does not have a small flame test for furniture and you have to ask yourself why there’s been so little call for a change to regulations that haven’t been revised since 1988.’
 
It’s a statement of fact that FRs are worth billions of pounds to the chemical industry and the more products it can persuade government should be treated with them, the more money it makes. So it has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and Edge says he’s seen at first hand 
how it works hard to keep people on-side. 
 
Its line is always that FRs save lives by slowing the development of a fire and giving people crucial extraminutes to escape from a burning building. But Arlene Blum’s research brings this assertion into question and she says it’s toxic smoke from FRs that kills people in fires.
 
Terry Edge, who was eased out of his job in 2014 after bringing a whistle-blower case against BIS, says what’s important for consumers is health and there should be more open debate around the heavy use of chemicals in products we all have in our homes that are known to be harmful to humans - and the environment. ‘And with furniture, the picture is very different today compared to the ‘80s - when only around five per cent of people had a smoke alarm at home.
 
‘And thanks to the work of Arlene Blum in the US, far more is known about the dangers of FR chemicals.’
 
 
LEARN MORE
 
The Green Science Policy Institute: 
 
 Read the document on Intertek’s proposed changes to the Match Test
 
FIRA - The (British) Furniture Industry Research Association
 
CHEM TRUST
 
 

 

 

 
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