A short history of fire retardants and how they come to be in UK furniture
In California during 1975 information was being gathered on fires in the home. It was discovered that one of the main causes was discarded cigarettes which continued to burn, setting light to furniture.
Pressure was put on the cigarette companies to produce a cigarette that went out when discarded. Through clever marketing they managed to move responsibility from the cigarette to the furniture manufacturers by putting forward the case that instead of changing the cigarette it would be much better to treat all the furniture in your house with flame retardant chemicals.
Sounds crazy but this lead to the Californian fire regulations TB117. This stated that all beds and sofas had to be chemically treated to meet this specification. Due to the size of the market in California most manufactures decided to chemically treat all their furniture, wherever it was shipped. When the chemical companies realised the size and profitability of this market they pushed other governments to follow suit under the emotive public safety banner.
In 1988, the regulations were adopted by only two countries in Europe – the United Kingdom and Ireland. This led to the introduction of the British standard BS7177, based on the American system. The other countries in Europe said that the FR chemicals used were not sufficiently tested and could be dangerous to human health.
The changing of the foam inside furniture, and replacing it with a new FR Foam had a certain logic as many of the old foams did give off toxic fumes when burnt – but even these FR chemicals inside the foam can still leach out into the air. More alarmingly was the introduction of the “add-on “ chemicals to be applied to the back of furniture fabrics as back-coating. This was far more controversial as, over time, coating would break down into dust and migrate into the environment. Some early back-coats contained Brominated chemicals and later ones included Antimony Trioxide, Sodium dioctyl-sulposuccinate and C14-17 Alkanes Chlorinated to name just a few. Some of the above have now been banned (but not without many years of use). One should consider what has happened to all the furniture produced over the years with these now banned chemicals in them? With normal safety concerns they should have been recalled. However, due to the quantity in the UK of mattresses and sofas which contain these toxic chemicals and an admittance by the UK government that they only have two incinerators capable of dealing with them, the decision was made to leave them where they were – in people’s homes!
The introduction of Fire Retardants in the UK was supported by the media who generated fear in the public (and still are) into accepting the new regulations by using pictures of houses in flames, burn victims and samples of furniture burning in containers. The fact that some of these chemicals don’t really work and in many cases increase the amount of toxic fumes, seems to be totally ignored.
In order to try and defend the introduction of these chemicals the authorities have pointed to a drop in deaths and injuries due to the new law, however there has also been a drop in fire casualties in Europe without the introduction of fire retardants. Many argue that this reduction has been due to smoke alarms, better electrics, wiring and tighter controls on manufactured goods. (See the statistics here).
The use of Fire Retardants is also supported by some manufacturing trade organisations who may see it as a way of protecting their industry from European imports. When questioned, many European manufactures have no doubt this is the reason why they were introduced. Perhaps it may be time they re-think the morality of supporting the introduction of these toxic chemicals and the effect they have peoples’ homes and families?
Please have a look at our blog – read the information for yourself and come to an informed decision. We’d love to hear your views.