Comments on the British Furniture Confederation’s response to the Sunday Times

Comments on the British Furniture Confederation’s response to the Sunday Times

On April 9th 2017 the Sunday Times published an article about how the Stockholm Convention is set to rule that items containing the brominated flame retardant, DecaBDE, will need to be disposed of safely by incineration at end-life, instead of being thrown into landfill sites or recycled as at present. You can access the article here:

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/toxic-fire-resistant-sofas-linked-to-surge-in-thyroid-cancer-v9zd0x537

You may not be able to read it all because the Times Online is a fee-paying service. However, after the article appeared I was contacted by the Daily Mail, the Mirror, and the Sun, who all ran articles based on the Times’ (the Express, too, although they didn’t contact me). You can read a couple of these at:

https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/3297643/could-your-sofa-give-you-cancer-flame-retardant-in-your-settee-doubles-risk-of-thyroid-tumour/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4395924/Your-sofa-CANCER.html

In effect, the Times pointed out that while the UK furniture industry stopped using DecaBDE a few years ago, there are still millions of sofas and mattresses in UK homes right now that contain it. And these will need to be properly (and expensively) disposed of at end-life, even if their owners don’t demand their removal before that.

They also point out that the industry and Ministers knew about all this in 2013 but failed to act.

The British Furniture Confederation has just issued a press release on this subject, reproduced below. I’ve added my interpretation of it in blue italics, in the text.

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THE BFC PRESS RELEASE OF 11 APRIL 2017

http://britishfurnitureconfederation.org.uk/upholstered-furniture-fire-retardants/

UPHOLSTERED FURNITURE AND FIRE RETARDANTS

The British Furniture Confederation (BFC) has responded to claims made by the national press this week with regards to the safety of fire retardant chemicals used in upholstery fabrics.

The UK’s Furniture & Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations were introduced in 1988 to safeguard consumers against the devastating effect of toxic fumes and rapid burning associated with foam fillings. The regulations have been shown to save many 100s of lives and thousands of injuries over the years. Consequently, The British Furniture Confederation (BFC) fully supports them.

The BFC makes no mention of the fact that the toxic fumes given off by flame retardants when they burn are far worse than before the Regulations were introduced. Crucially, it is also ignoring the fact that the government proved in 2014 that the match test for cover fabrics doesn’t work in most cases. This of course brings into question the number of lives it’s claimed the Regulations save (which were always estimates to begin with). The drop in fire deaths since the 1980s could just as easily be down to the massive increase in smoke alarms since then, and the reduction in smoking at home. There is also emerging evidence that the levels of carbon monoxide produced in house fires may be higher with the presence of flame retardants, thereby shortening the time to flash-over.

In addition, we recognise the importance of, and fully support, the EU’s REACH Regulations, which ensure that any chemical that is found to cause harm to human health or the environment is effectively controlled, or removed from use.

What the BFC fails to mention is that REACH is always a long way behind the vast numbers of chemicals released by the industry on to the market. The pattern so far has been that the flame retardant industry releases a new brominated flame retardant, claims it’s safe then waits for someone else, at great expense of time and money, to prove it’s not. Then they remove it and immediately substitute a near-identical equivalent. So what the BFC really means by fully supporting REACH is that it has no moral compunction to act on this pattern which has caused thousands of cancers and other illnesses; it’s just going to wait, like the FR industry, until REACH has the time and money to prove the case against whichever FRs they are currently enjoying huge profits from.

Of the chemicals listed as of concern, DecaBDE, which historically was used as a back coating for upholstery fabrics, is already listed as a Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) under the REACH regulations. This means its use is severely restricted. As far as we are aware it is no longer used as a fire retardant for furniture fabrics in the UK, and hasn’t been for a number of years. New legislation – https://www.fira.co.uk/news/article/decabde-flame-retardant-restrictions – will prevent nearly all use of this chemical.

There are two issues here that the BFC doesn’t want you to consider. First, while it’s true that DecaBDE is no longer used in UK furniture (by the way ‘number of years’ is somewhat misleading here, in that Deca has only been left out of our furniture for about three years), it is still in the millions of sofas that people purchased before it was disused. This is exactly what the BFC is most frightened of: that they may have to stump up the bill for disposal. They even went begging to the European Commission a few years back,  pointing out that the UK has a ‘mountain’ of old sofas to dispose of. “Tough,” said the Commission; “that’s the UK’s problem.”

Second, they aren’t telling you that the FR industry simply replaced DecaBDE with a new BFR which almost certainly will eventually be found to be poisonous too. And the BFC is happy for its members to use it.

It is our belief that the combination of these two Regulations ensures that the upholstered furniture on sale in the UK is the safest in the world with regard to fire performance; and reflects the latest knowledge

This is an outright lie. The BFC is well aware that the current match test doesn’t work and therefore millions of our sofas are ignitable when they aren’t supposed to be. No one, including the BFC and FIRA, has ever provided proof that this isn’t true; in fact, back in 2014 they admitted that it is. Now, in the absence of anyone at BEIS who knows different, they are simply touting the untrue line that the UK’s regs are the safest in the world on the basis that if you express opinion-as-fact often enough, people will believe it. As for ‘reflects the latest knowledge’ . . . again, REACH cannot possibly catch up with the thousands of chemicals it has to assess. Therefore ‘latest knowledge’ is very misleading.

The BFC has long campaigned to have the Regulations revised to reflect modern materials and manufacturing processes, as well as addressing a number of areas in the Regulations that needed added clarity. We welcomed the decision by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to launch a full revision of the Regulations and fully supported its stated aim to reduce the use of fire retardant chemicals.

The first part of this is actually true! The BFC has long campaigned to get the Regulations updated. However, this was when they believed the basic status quo wouldn’t change, i.e. that the flammability tests would still lead to the use of tons of FRs. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this site, there is a very close relationship between the chemical industry and the BFC, FIRA, the National Bed Federation, FRETWORK, Clarkson Textiles, etc. I leave it to the reader to speculate as to why this would be so. Incidentally, the statement ‘full revision’ is also misleading. The BFC is well aware that BEIS’s latest consultation included only partial and contentious amendments alongside the new match test. This was designed to ensure the consultation would not be implemented. The BFC is wary of stating this, however, since it actually doesn’t want anything to come out of the consultation, thereby preserving the FRs status quo. By implying that these other amendments were complete/full, it can lead on lying that the proposed match test is not going to do what it says it will do.

The last statement is also a lie. The BFC has actually tried to block the government’s aims to reduce FRs. As it does so in this very statement, by lying that the Regulations provide fire safety, then implying that the proposed new match test will not reduce FRs (see below).

But while the recent consultation on proposed changes to the Regulations had a number of positive features, the BFC were unable to support BEIS’ proposals as we do not believe that the changes will satisfy BEIS own targets of reducing the use of fire retardant chemicals, while maintaining the current levels of fire safety for both consumers and the fire service.

Phil Reynolds of FIRA didn’t quite put it like this to me recently, when we bumped into each other at the NEC. He said industry couldn’t support the recent consultation because it was so badly put together. I agree. As for the second part of this sentence, it is an out-and-out lie by reversal. FIRA’s own research – as published in the 2014 consultation document – proved that the new match test will hugely reduce FRs. As for maintaining the current levels of fire safety, this could I suppose bizarrely be a true statement in that the BFC may actually be suggesting that it wants to maintain the current unsafe levels of fire safety.

Regarding the safety of fire fighters . . . a survey undertaken by a leading UK fire service a few years ago produced shocking results: 60% of their fire fighters were dying of cancer within 10 years of retiring, and retirement age is 55. This is way above the national average. Similar findings inspired US firefighters to join the movement to remove FRs from US furniture, which was achieved there in 2014.

So let’s be clear about this: the BFC is fully aware that the current match test doesn’t work in most cases and that this means huge amounts of very toxic FR  fumes are being produced in house fires unnecessarily, not to mention poisoning us as they wear off into house dust. It also knows that the volume of such fumes is greater than it should be because cover fabrics are ignitable when they shouldn’t be. It is also aware that very soon after cover fabrics ignite, hydrogen cyanide is produced – one of the most deadly toxins, as used by the Nazis in the gas chambers. Hydrogen cyanide is persistent too: it stays in our systems for many years and can therefore produce serious health problems at any time.

The BFC’s real fears are two-fold: 1) that it may have to stump up the bill for disposal of furniture containing FRs (not just DecaBDE), and 2) that its members could face massive costs via recalls or law suits once the public is fully aware of the facts. This is compounded of course by the fact that the BFC has known the truth for at least three years but has not done anything about it other than lie.

We hope that BEIS will take account of the views of the furniture Industrywhen it publishes its response to the consultation in the coming weeks.

Well, Phil Reynolds told FIRA’s industry members that in his view nothing will come out of this consultation, a view which I also share. Apart from the fact there is now no one at BEIS with the knowledge to understand let alone process the consultation returns, it is not in their interests to go ahead with the new match test. Apart from angering the chemical industry, they would also have to explain why they didn’t implement the new test in 2014, thereby keeping the public at risk from fatal fires and FR poisoning.

We are also aware of the potential waste disposal issue if DecaBDE is listed as a Persistent Organic Pollutant and we will work with the various authorities to address it.

I arranged a talk for the furniture industry in 2013 at which an official from the Environment Agency gave a presentation about how very soon it will be necessary to dispose of FR-laden products safely at end-life. He explained how expensive it would be. As said, that got the industry’s attention. However, while the BFC is now saying it will work with the various authorities to address the problem, the question is why has it done nothing at all about the problem since it first found out about it in 2013; indeed, why it has continued to endorse its members putting more FRs in its furniture than was necessary in the intervening period. Again, it is also silent on Deca’s BFR replacement, not to mention the cocktail of other FRs in the average UK sofa/mattress that will also no doubt be banned eventually and added to the safe-disposal list.

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