Fire safety without flame retardants

September 21, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Feature Articles | Leave a comment

In favour of other ways of
achieving fire safety


More than two years on from first being mooted, the UK is opening a new consultation on revised fire safety tests which may reduce the amount of flame retardants being used in home furnishings whilst preserving – or potentially even improving – the ability of furniture to resist ignition.

Controversy about the efficacy of the existing UK standard has been around for a while, but only last month surfaced in the UK news media, receiving coverage in the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times.

In contrast, the US media has been covering issues relating to the efficacy and safety of fire retardants for years, with an early, major investigation by the Chicago Tribune in 2012, and most recently covered again by TIME.

The concerns are threefold:

  • Firstly, that fire retardants present unacceptable environmental and human health risks;
  • Secondly, that fire retardants are actually ineffective, doing too little to prevent fires taking hold;
  • Thirdly, that when fires do take hold, fire retardants contribute to increased toxicity of the indoor atmosphere, making it harder for residents to safely escape.

This adds up to a strong argument for finding other ways to secure fire safety than relying on adding chemical fire retardants to flammable furnishings.

The solution lies in moving away from fire safety tests which are built around the obvious solution (adding more fire retardants) and instead encouraging development of furnishings which are inherently more fire-resistant – a move recently backed by a number of furniture trade bodies – and continuing to introduce smoke detectors, automatic sprinkler and extinguisher systems, smoke alarms etc. which can reduce risk of domestic fires without introducing environmental health risks from fire retardants of unclear efficacy.

By switching focus from chemical solutions to making existing furnishing designs less flammable, to a more holistic approach to fire-safety, it should be possible to have furnishings which are both genuinely fire-resistant in home environments which also work to prevent fires, thereby reaching a higher level of fire safety than is currently achieved without using substances which are either known to present risks to human and environmental health or about which such information is lacking (as seems to overwhelmingly be the case for organophosphorus fire retardants).

Whether or not the new UK proposals satisfactorily achieve this is, at present, unclear. Anyone wishing to respond to the consultation can do so here. More information about the proposals is here.

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