Flame retardants in our furniture; UK regulations and ten years of ‘imminent change’

Look around you right now. Are you at work? Are you sitting on a foam-filled desk chair, fabric blinds keeping light from bouncing off a computer monitor in its black plastic casing, your hand gently resting on the smooth shell of a mouse or dusty keyboard as you scroll through these words? Or are you at home? Perhaps slouching comfortably in a favourite armchair, the curtains pulled closed, a TV in the corner and a mobile phone in your hand. Is there a carpet? Each of these items, be they in your home, your office, your car, no matter the location, they are all likely to contain potentially toxic flame retardants.

Of course, in writing this I’ve made an assumption; I’ve assumed you are reading this in the UK or Ireland. If you are sitting in California, Washington, Sweden, Norway, France, New Zealand, Liechtenstein, anywhere else in the EU, anywhere else in the world in fact, you will not be subject to the same legislation that requires furniture to be laden with chemical flame retardants; there are US states and EU countries where many of the flame retardants you are being exposed to in the UK have actually been banned.

What’s the problem?

A recent parliamentary inquiry carried out by the Environmental Audit Committee on ‘Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life1’, heard evidence from a wide range of experts on the growing body of research linking flame retardants to adverse effects on humans and the environment. Breast Cancer UK provided evidence suggesting the US and UK have the highest levels of flame retardants in human body fluids and highlighted a study that found PBDEs (flame retardants banned under EU legislation) in breast milk2. Meanwhile, the Cancer Prevention and Education Society listed the effects of flame retardant exposure as cancer, neurotoxicity, developmental, behavioural, metabolic and reproductive problems, endocrine disruption and allergy3.

The media attention that followed focused strongly on the presence of flame retardants in breastmilk, with headlines such as  ‘British mums have some of world’s most fireproof breast milk’ or ‘Cocktail of chemicals’ found in UK mothers’ breast milk…’. Whilst the headlines undoubtedly draw on public fear for attention, they do highlight an important issue; their message is not that breastfeeding is bad, expert opinion on its benefits remain unchanged, but that it is unacceptable that even the most innocent and vulnerable members of our society are exposed to these chemicals. The question is not should we implement change, but why haven’t we implemented change? It is clear we need effective and immediate action to reduce our exposure to harmful flame retardants, safe-guarding both our health and our environment.

Current UK regulations

Our current regulations require our furniture and furnishings meet what is known as the ‘match test’ under fire safety standards. The match test is designed to replicate a match or small flame igniting the cover fabric on upholstered furniture. The test material is placed tightly against a flammable test foam with a flame held against it for 20 seconds;
after the flame is removed, any remaining fire must go out within two minutes. The test was developed partly in reaction to a devasting fire in a Woolworth store in central Manchester in 1979, which claimed the lives of 10 people. The fire investigation identified flammable polyurethane foam in the store’s furniture stock, and the thick toxic smoke it produced, as key contributors to the incident’s severity. So, in 1988, the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations came into effect.

To meet this test, most furniture manufacturers apply large volumes of chemical flame retardants to make both the foams and the cover fabrics in furniture fire resistant, exposing us to much greater levels of these harmful chemicals than even our closest European neighbours. Cover fabrics are required to be tested over flammable foam, but flammable foam can no longer be used in furniture construction; we’re unnecessarily duplicating our flame-retardant application and testing unrealistic combinations of materials, rather than the product as a whole. The regulations also fail to consider modern furniture construction, not allowing for the use of protective ‘barrier’ materials underneath the cover, and uncertainty in what stage a component needs tested has led to doubt over the legality of prosecution1. Whilst the intention was to protect life, the reality is both an ineffective test and increased exposure to harmful chemicals, resulting in a wider threat to society and the environment. And here we remain.

Since these regulations were introduced in 1988, we banned the use of asbestos, got online, cloned a sheep and decoded the genome; we also built the channel tunnel, brought the good Friday agreement to Northern Ireland, spent £700 million pounds on the millennium dome and learnt that even Daenerys Targaryen is susceptible to the tyranny of power and entitlement. We’ve also had thirty more years of health, environment and toxicology research. We now know that flame retardants leach out of products and accumulate in our blood, our children and our wildlife and we’ve linked exposure to a wide range of serious health implications.

Fatalities from house fires have undoubtedly dropped significantly since the regulations were introduced. However, these figures alone tell us little about the regulation’s effectiveness. New Zealand has repeatedly been used for comparison, with a recorded decline in fire fatalities mirroring that of the UK, despite having no regulations on furniture flammability4; similar declines have also been reported in other EU countries1. In 1988, when the regulations were implemented, smoke alarm ownership in England and Wales was 8%, by 2017, this was up to 95%5; the rate of smoking over this time period has also almost halved6. The risk from fire itself has diminished, yet since the 1990s, the majority of deaths and injuries from fires are caused by the inhalation of toxic smoke7, which is actually made worse by flame retardants7. Reports and reviews commissioned by the EU and individual member states have time and again concluded that there simply is not enough evidence to support the claim that flammability requirements, such as those in the UK, actually lead to fewer fire deaths8,9.

Our world has changed, our risks have changed and despite this, we have failed to revise these outdated and deficient regulations. Why?

The review process and all the problems therein

The effectiveness of the regulations was analysed in two separate reports commissioned by the UK government, first in 200010 and later in 200911. In 2010, the regulations were recommended for update. Four years later, in 2014, the government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published its first consultation, outlining changes to the regulations and stating ‘it is possible to demonstrate in full scale tests that the Regulations are ineffective’12. The consultation document went on to conclude that the proposed changes would reduce flame retardant use by up to 50%, saving the industry up to £50m per year, citing growing evidence that flame retardants are harmful to health and the environment. The full consultation responses from industry, NGOs and retailers were published after a freedom of information request from the CHEM Trust in 2015. It transpired that the process of updating the legislation had been put on hold after significant opposition from both the furniture and the chemical industries.

Whilst the current regulations don’t actually stipulate the use of chemical flame retardants, they make it extremely difficult to achieve by other methods. Furniture manufacturers elsewhere in the EU aim to avoid the very chemicals required for UK compliance, meaning they often can’t, or won’t, manufacture their furniture for the UK. This has led to a potential barrier to trade across the European market, brought to a head in 2016 when the European Furniture Industries Confederation lodged a complaint with the European Commission accusing the regulations of violating single market rules. The reduced competition that results from this market barrier benefits the UK furniture industry, it also calls into question their motivation in resisting proposed changes that would bring us in line with the rest of the EU.

In 2016, a further consultation, again proposing regulatory changes, was announced amidst accusations of misconduct and breaches of the civil service code within BEIS (previously BIS), covert lobbying by the flame-retardant Industry and a whistleblowing case brought forward by the previous lead civil servant on the review. The revised proposal was, once again, met with resistance. The government didn’t publish the results from this consultation until three years later, July 2019, following pressure from the Environmental Audit Committee. Whilst much of the controversy remains, the environmental audit committee concluded that obstruction within BEIS and opposition from the furniture and flame-retardant industries, including protection of their market share, had contributed to the delayed regulation reform.

Where are we now?

After almost a decade of proposed regulation revisions, and a three year wait for the publication of the consultation outcome, the government response provided a disappointing lack of clarity or urgency. It read ‘We have decided not to proceed with our proposal to revise the prescribed testing regime set out in the FFRs’ and ‘we will work… to develop… a further consultation … with a view to introducing legislation as soon as is practicable’. The described intention is to work towards an ‘out-come focussed, criteria-based approach’.

By not adopting a new testing regime, and by adding further consultations, the government is continuing to expose the UK population and environment to unnecessary and harmful chemicals. Until changes are agreed and implemented, the UK public will continue to be denied the right to buy furniture and furnishings free from toxic chemicals; a right already realised, with no detriment to fire safety, in many other countries across the world. However, despite very few details on what an ‘out-come focussed, criteria-based approach’ may look like, there is hope that as a blank canvas, done right, it has the potential to open our market up to innovative solutions for fire safety. International companies, already producing furniture free from the most toxic chemicals, are sitting in wait for legislative barriers to be removed, ready to supply UK customers with the long-anticipated non-toxic sofa. What is needed now is action. We cannot, and should not be asked to, continue waiting silently for this process to conclude. The stakes are simply too high to allow procrastination or deliberate delay to continue.

Where do we go from here?

Fidra are calling for immediate and decisive action that removes the barriers to innovative alternatives to chemical flame retardants and promotes fire safety without toxicity. We want future regulations that recognise the health and environmental consequences of toxicity and, following the example of other countries, bans the use of known harmful chemicals. And we do not believe the British public should have to wait.

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References

 

1.            House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life. 2019.

 

2.            Breast Cancer UK. BCUK Background Briefing: Flame Retardants.

 

3.            Cancer Prevention and   Education Society. Written evidence to EAC inquiry into Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life. 2019.

 

4.            University of Central Lancaster. Cheap chemical flame retardants increase fire deaths University of Central Lancaster Press Office; 2017.

 

5.            Home Office. Percentage of households owning a smoke alarm or a working smoke alarm by nation (0701). Fire statistics: smoke alarms2017.

 

6.            NHS. Statistics on Smoking. NHS Digital  2019.

 

7.            McKenna ST, Birtles R, Dickens K, Walker RG, Spearpoint MJ, Stec AA, Hull TR. Flame retardants in UK furniture increase smoke toxicity more than they reduce fire growth rate. Chemosphere 2018;196:429-439.

 

8.            ARCADIS. European Commission Health & Consumers DG – Identification and evaluation of data on flame retardants in consumer products. 2011. 311 p.

 

9.            ANSES. Opinion of the   French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupation Health & Safety concerning   the “request regarding the fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture “. 2015. p 4.

 

10.          Stevens GK, Baljinder, Morley N. Fire Retardant Technologies: safe products with optimised hazard and risk environmental performance. 2000.

 

11.          Greenstreet Berman Ltd. A statistical report to investigate the effectiveness of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988. Consumer and Competition Policy Directorate, BIS; 2009.

 

12.          BIS. Technical paper:   Systematic rationale for modification of the Furniture & Furnishings (Fire) (Safety)   Regulations in relation to Schedules 4 & 5. 2014.

 

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