Flame Retardants


The UK currently has some of the most stringent fire safety regulations worldwide for furniture and furnishings, yet our fire safety record mirrors that of countries with no regulations1. Time and again reports and reviews have discredited the opinion that our regulations lead to fewer fire deaths2,3. What they do achieve, is a much higher application of chemical flame retardants that have been linked to a wide range of health and environmental problems. At Fidra, we’ve been looking into chemical pollutants of environmental concern, and across the globe, flame retardants often top the list.

What does a sofa, a spatula and a sea bird have in common?

Flame retardants leach out of the products we fill our homes with, forming dust we can’t help but breath in and ingest. We find flame retardants, unfit for human consumption, in kitchen utensils and food packaging because our recycling has been contaminated with electronic waste. When split by demographic, research repeatedly shows highest intake in young infants, followed by toddlers, then older children4; we’ve found flame retardants in breast milk5. They escape from manufacturing facilities, our homes and disposal facilities, where they persist in the environment and concentrate up food chains. They have been found in wildlife across the globe, from penguins in the south to polar bears in the north6,7. There are flame retardants in the eggshells of the Bass Rock gannets, long term inhabitants of Fidra’s hometown, North Berwick.

Ten years of imminent change

Our current ‘furniture and furnishings regulations’ were established in 1988 and, despite being recommended for update as far back as 2010 and acknowledged by the government to be ineffective in 2014, remain untouched. The past ten years have seen two proposed revisions, two public consultations and the promise of a third, accusations of misconduct and covert lobbying and a whistleblowing case brought forward by the former lead civil servant on the review. And still we are no closer to updating the original regulations.

Where do we go from here?

These regulations were set up with the intention to protect life, however the reality is ineffective fire safety and increased exposure to harmful chemicals, resulting in a wider threat to society and the environment. Fidra are calling for legislative action that removes the regulatory barriers and allows fire safety to be achieved without toxic chemicals. To protect ourselves, our children and our environment, we need to reduce our reliance on these harmful chemicals, and we need to act now.

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

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

3.           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.

4.           Malliari E, Kalantzi OI. Children’s exposure to brominated flame retardants in indoor environments – A review. Environ Int 2017;108:146-169.

5.           Fromme H, Becher G, Hilger B, Völkel W. Brominated flame retardants – Exposure and risk assessment for the general population. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 2016;219(1):1-23.

6.           Wolschke H, Meng X-Z, Xie Z, Ebinghaus R, Cai M. Novel flame retardants (N-FRs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (DL-PCBs) in fish, penguin, and skua from King George Island, Antarctica. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2015;96(1):513-518.

7.           Verreault J, Gabrielsen GW, Chu S, Muir DC, Andersen M, Hamaed A, Letcher RJ. Flame retardants and methoxylated and hydroxylated polybrominated diphenyl ethers in two Norwegian Arctic top predators: glaucous gulls and polar bears. Environ Sci Technol 2005;39(16):6021-8.