New evidence demonstrates Furniture Fire Safety regulations must address smoke toxicity

The 1988 UK Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety regulations are long overdue for revision and are currently under review by the Office for Product Safety and Standards. New voluntary furniture flammability standards are also being developed in parallel to new regulations to reflect modern fire risks and scenarios. These furniture regulations currently do not address smoke toxicity, however a recent peer reviewed study provides compelling evidence that smoke toxicity must be brought within scope of the future Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations[i].

Why add chemical flame retardants to furniture if they don’t improve safety?

To comply with current UK furniture fire safety regulations, most furniture businesses rely on the use of chemical flame retardants (CFRs) to pass mandatory prescriptive flammability tests for product compliance. In some instances, up to 20% of a furniture products weight can be made up of CFRs to comply with regulations. The purpose of the CFRs is to prevent or to slow the growth of fire. However, many of these CFRs, migrate out of furniture via skin contact[ii], exposure to heat and UV light stressors, abrasion during use and even volatilisation over time. These chemicals contaminate household dust and the surrounding indoor environment. Once in the wider outdoor environment, the most toxic persistent CFRs  can accumulate and cause harm to wildlife[iii]. More so, when CFR-treated furniture burns, CFRs exacerbate fire smoke toxicity and the release of toxic gases such as hydrogen cyanide which cause more fire-related deaths than the fires themselves[iv], [v]. Fire statistics show that inhalation of toxic smoke is the primary cause of fire death and injury in the UK[vi].

New research shows chemical flame retardants increase smoke toxicity

New research finds the chemicals flame retardants used in UK furniture release toxic smoke during fires but safer alternatives are available.

The University of Central Lancashire’s latest study tested furniture fabric and filling compositions typically used in everyday homes. Many of these fabrics and fillings are treated with chemical flame retardants, many of which are known to be highly toxic in fire scenarios[vii]. Nine upholstered (fabric and fillings) composites with and without flame retardant technology treatments were tested. Samples were treated with a commonly used brominated flame retardant (decabromodiphenyl ethane or DBDPE) or a mixture of chlorinated organophosphate (trischloropropyl phosphate or TCPP) + nitrogen-based (melamine) flame retardants. Fabric treated with low toxicity expandable graphite was also tested.  When ignited, the samples treated with brominated and organophosphate flame retardants created significantly higher levels of the toxic gases carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide compared with other treated and non-treated samples. Increased release of these highly toxic gases during a furniture fire are a serious concern to fire safety and human[iv], [viii].

Another important finding of this research shows that viable alternatives to CFR do exist,  the paper concluded that the smoke toxicity of upholstered furniture can be reduced by using condensed phase FRs, such as expandable graphite, or less flammable materials, such as polyester wadding.

Jacob A Lane, T Richard Hull, 2024, Variation of flammability and smoke toxicity of upholstered furniture composites with fire retardant treatment.

However, brominated and organophosphate flame retardants are still commonly used by the furniture and furnishings industry. These synthetic organic chemicals have properties that prevent flame combustion, but the slow burning exacerbates the release of incomplete combustion products during a furniture fire – hence the increase in levels of carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, particulate matter and other harmful substances [iv], [viii].

Furthermore, domestic furniture fire risks research conducted by Dr Whaley and others found that a cluster of modern household furniture items, including baby and infant products, had low fire risk but high human CFR exposure rankings[ix] – raising the question, should we really be adding CFRs to all these furniture products, where fire risk is minimal? The study used a fire risk model to explore furniture fire risks and CFR exposure for a selection of furniture types, taking account of different ignition sources and other fire parameters. This is further supported by the UK governments’ review of fire related fatalities in England[vi]. The review identified that people of 65 or older were most at risk of fire deaths.

In England, fire related fatalities peaked in 1981 with 755 fatalities. Over time, these have dropped and peak fire fatalities of only 252 were recorded 38 years later[vi]. Between 2011 and 2019, domestic fires accounted for 52% of fires, and of these only 38% started in the living room. There is a lack of evidence that the UK’s 1988 Furniture Fire Safety regulations have helped reduce fire fatalities[i]. Interestingly the fall in fire deaths across the UK is mirrored in countries where there are no furniture flammability regulations, further raising the question why are chemical flame retardants added to furniture, if they do not improve safety?


UK Furniture Fire Safety Regulations must include toxicity

The current UK Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations must change. There is momentum within the concerned stakeholder community to improve regulations and the most important decisions now lie in policy makers hands. If UK government want furniture to be sustainable and safe, fire smoke toxicity must be addressed as part of these new regulations.

Visit our website to learn about our Sustainable Fire Safety project and sign up for our newsletter. If you want to help phase out the unnecessary use of chemical flame retardants in furniture, consider writing to your local MP and support our call for chemical transparency across the furniture supply chain and safe and sustainable fire safety.



[i] Lane J.A,  Hull T.R, 2024.Variation of flammability and smoke toxicity of upholstered furniture composites with fire retardant treatment, Journal of Materials Science & Technology,

[ii] Lounis M, Leconte S, Rousselle C, Belzunces LP, Desauziers V, Lopez-Cuesta JM, Julien JM, Guenot D, Bourgeois D.2019. Fireproofing of domestic upholstered furniture: Migration of flame retardants and potential risks. J Hazard Mater. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2018.11.110.

[iii]  Law R.J., Covaci A, Harrad S, Herzke D, Abdallah M. A.-E., Fernie K, L-M L. Toms, Takigami H. 2014. Levels and trends of PBDEs and HBCDs in the global environment: Status at the end of 2012. Environment International,

[iv] McKenna ST, Birtles R, Dickens K, Walker RG, Spearpoint MJ, Stec AA, Hull TR. 2018. Flame retardants in UK furniture increase smoke toxicity more than they reduce fire growth rate. Chemosphere. DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2017.12.017.

[v] Fidra, 2023, No smoke without fire and lower smoke toxicity without chemicals? Available online :

[vi] Home Office, 2019. Detailed analysis of fires attended by fire and rescue services, England, April 2018 to March 2019.

[vii] Conway KS, Schmidt CJ, Brown TT. 2020. Medical Examiner Review of the Characteristics of Fire-Related Homicides. Academic Forensic Pathology. 10(2):87-93. DOI:10.1177/1925362120964377.

[viii] Stec A.A. 2017. Fire toxicity – The elephant in the room? Fire Safety Journal, 91, 79-90.

[ix] Whaley P ,Wattam S, Bedford C, Bell M, Harrad S, Jones N, Kirkbride T, Naldzhiev D, Payne E, Wooding EJ, Hull. R. 2023. Reconciling chemical flame retardant exposure and fire risk in domestic furniture. PLoS ONE.