No smoke without fire and lower smoke toxicity without chemicals?

We know that smoke from fires is toxic, but research suggests that flame retardant chemicals exacerbate fire smoke toxicity. This blog explores the connection between flame retardants added to furniture and furnishings and increased fire smoke toxicity. It draws on the need for UK government to protect home fire victims and firefighters from inhalation of toxic fumes by including smoke toxicity within the scope of the UK Furniture Fire Safety Regulations currently under consultation.1

Why are flame retardants added to furniture? 

Flame retardants such as alum (a hydrated sulfate salt of aluminum) have been used as far back as ancient Egyptian times to slow the rate of burning. Nowadays, flame retardants are added to a whole range of consumer products with the intention of increasing fire safety by delaying the spread of fire and saving lives. The most common flame retardants added to our modern furniture and furnishings are synthetic organic chemicals such as organo-halogenated, organo-phosphorus and organo-nitrogen compounds but inorganic chemicals and natural minerals such as graphite are also used.1,2,3 

Current UK regulations require furniture and furnishings to meet fire safety standards.4 Modern furniture and furnishings often contain flammable synthetic polymeric materials and these products must pass smouldering (cigarette) and flaming (match) ignition flammability tests. If upholstered furniture and furnishing materials are not inherently flame retardant, through use of materials like wool, they are often treated with additive flame retardants that may contain halogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, boron and metals.5 


Why do chemical flame retardants increase smoke toxicity? 

Imagine that a fire has taken hold of your living room due to an unexpected accident involving an ignition source such as a candle or cigarette. Before you know, the fire has spread to the furniture items in your home, many of which contain 2-30% by weight flame retardant chemicals2 to comply with stringent UK fire safety standards. The flame retardants may have reduced or delayed the burning of the furniture but until the combustion cycle (Fig. 1) is broken, fire smoke will continue to build up.3  


Figure 1: Typical combustion cycle (taken from Kim et al. 2021.3 ( 


The slow burning of furniture materials, especially those containing flame retardant chemicals, results in combustion products including soot, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and a complex gaseous mixture that can include the toxic gases hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide.6,7 

 The production of toxic gases during domestic house fires significantly increases the likelihood of death and serious injury.6,7 The opaque dense black smoke claimed to be generated by halogenated flame retardants, also make it more difficult for residents to escape from burning buildings, and for firefighters to safely evacuate and extinguish the fire6,7Fire statistics show that inhalation of toxic smoke is the primary cause of fire death and injury in the UK.8 However, there is not enough evidence to support claims that chemical flame retardants, used to delay the spread of fires, leads to fewer fire deaths. 

With the known health and safety implications of inhalation of toxic fumes during fires, smoke toxicity needs to be addressed in UK Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations 

The current UK Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations are outdated. The regulations were introduced in 1988, partly in reaction to a devasting fire in a Woolworths store in Manchester, where 10 people died. Flammable polyurethane foam in the store’s furniture stock, and the thick toxic smoke it produced, were identified as key contributors to the fire severity and resultant fatalities. The Government’s own research and analysis of fire statistics found most fire fatalities occur in living/dining rooms and bedrooms, and result from inhalation of toxic smoke.9 Upholstered furniture was also found to be the main material responsible for fire development in 16% of domestic fires.9  

 On August 2nd 2023, the UK Government launched a much anticipated consultation1 to review the UK’s current furniture fire safety regulations, bringing with it a unique opportunity to reduce our reliance on chemical flame-retardants and towards more effective and sustainable solutions. 

 By omitting fire smoke toxicity from the scope of the new regulations, new standards will not be able to effectively protect the health and safety of the UK public. Maintaining the focus on stringent furniture flammability test criteria will only increase the adverse effects of chemicals on public and environmental health with no evidenced gain in public safety. 


Future regulations must go further to protect firefighters and home fire victims 

Research evidence of the potential consequences for firefighters and home fire victims exposed to increased fire smoke toxicity due to use of chemical flame retardants is building. Harmful effects from occupational exposure to flame retardants is an area of growing concern, especially for firefighters. Recent research from the University of Central Lancaster has shown that UK firefighters’ mortality rate from all cancers is 1.6 times higher than the general population and concerned firefighters are taking steps to restrict the use of certain chemical flame retardants.10,11 The 2023 Fire Brigades Union conference agenda stated “There is further gathering of evidence that chemical flame retardants provide negligible delay to fire ignition, worsen fire conditions, and therefore will increase dangers to firefighter safety and welfare.”12 It is imperative that regulations are updated to protect emergency personnel and the public.  


Contradictory smoke toxicity research 

Whilst most research clearly indicates the risks associated with smoke toxicity from ignited flame retardant chemicals in furniture and furnishings. One study suggested that smoke resulting from the combustion of flame retarded furnishings did not increase indicators of potential chronic toxicity hazards relative to non-flame retarded furnishings.13 Similarly another study comparing smoke generated from mock burn rooms furnished with items from the UK, France and the US (countries with contrasting flammability standards), unexpectedly found that the smoke generated by burning UK furniture rooms were the least toxic.14 It should be noted, however, that the research design, omissions and conflicts of interest in the burn rooms study14 have been questioned by key academic experts.15  


UK furniture and furnishing fire safety regulations must address smoke toxicity 

Chemical flame retardants can no longer be labelled as ‘life saving’. Yes, flame retardants will delay the onset of a fire, but their real-life benefit to fire safety should continue to be questioned. It must also be remembered that chemical flame retardants can be lost from our furniture items and can persist in our homes and the wider environment, bioaccumulating along food chains, and causing significant health impacts for people and wildlife that are not accounted for in current safety assessments.16 

 The only solution is for industry to actively put more focus on removing chemical flame retardants from our homes, decreasing the concentrations of toxic gases produced during fires, and protecting human and environmental health from exposure to harmful chemicals.  

 Fidra are working closely with industry and policy makers to ensure that the new UK Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety regulations include smoke toxicity, increase chemical transparency along supply chains, and support safe and sustainable fire safety. By bringing the UK fire safety regulations in line with latest evidence and modern furniture design, we can ensure effective fire safety standards whilst protecting public and environmental health from the growing impacts of chemical pollution.   

 To find out more, read our ‘Long-awaited consultation on UK furniture fire safety regulations is open’ blog4 and see our sustainable fire safety webpage. 






1. Department for Business & Trade and Office for Product Safety & Standards (2023) Smarter Regulation: Consultation on the new approach to the fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture. Available at:

2. Leisewitz A., Hermann K., Schramm E. (2001) Substituting Environmentally Relevant Flame Retardants: Assessment Fundamentals, Research Report for German Federal Environment Agency. Available at:

3. Kim Y., Lee S., Yoon H. (2021) Fire‐Safe Polymer Composites: Flame‐Retardant Effect of Nanofillers. Polymers, 13, 540. polym13040540

4. Fidra (2023) Long-awaited consultation on UK furniture fire safety regulations is open. Fidra Blog. Available at:

5. Salmeia K. A., Gaan S., Malucelli G. (2016) Recent Advances for Flame Retardancy of Textiles Based on Phosphorus Chemistry. Polymers, 8, 319.

6. Stec A.A. (2017) Fire toxicity – The elephant in the room? Fire Safety Journal, 91, 79-90.

7. McKenna S.T., Birtles R, Dickens K., Walker R., Spearpoint M., Stec A.A. (2018) Flame retardants in UK furniture increase smoke toxicity more than they reduce fire growth rate. Chemosphere, 196, 429-439.

8. Home Office (2019) Detailed analysis of fires attended by fire and rescue services, England, April 2018 to March 2019.

9. Office for Product Safety & Standards (2023) Fire Risks of Upholstered Products. Available at:

10. Stec A.A., Robinson A., Wolffe T.A.M., Bagkeris E. (2023), Scottish Firefighters Occupational Cancer and Disease Mortality Rates: 2000-2020, Occupational Medicine, 73, 42–48.

11. Fire Brigades Union (2023) Final Agenda, Fire Brigades Union 94th Conference, Blackpool. Available at:

12. Cordner A., Rodgers K.M., Brown P., Morello-Frosch R. (2015) Firefighters and Flame Retardant Activism. New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, 24, 511-534. doi:10.2190/NS.24.4.f.

13. Osimitz T.G., Droege W., Hendriks G., Blais M.S. (2022) Evaluation of potential toxicity of smoke from controlled burns of furnished rooms – effect of flame retardancy, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A, 85:19, 783-797, DOI: 10.1080/15287394.2022.2087812.

14. Blais M.S., Carpenter K., Fernandez K. (2020) Comparative room burn study of furnished rooms from the United Kingdom, France and the United States. Fire Technology 56, 489–514.

15. Babrauskas V., Rodgers, K.M., Lucas, D. Fuoco R. (2021) Questions and Comments about the Methodology and Conclusions in ‘Comparative Room Burn Study of Furnished Rooms from the United Kingdom, France and the United States’, by Blais et al. 2019. Fire Technology 57, 497–502.

16. Page J., Whaley P., Bellingham M., Birnbaum L.S., Cavoski A., Fetherston Dilke D., Garside R., Harrad S., Kelly F., Kortenkamp A., Martin O., Stec A., Woolley T. (2023) A new consensus on reconciling fire safety with environmental & health impacts of chemical flame retardants, Environment International, 173, 107782.