New study exposes failings of UK furniture Fire Safety Regulations

A new study has exposed potential inadequacies in the current regulations concerning the fire safety of upholstered furniture.

The research was conducted by The University of Central Lancashire and demonstrates the variations in fire hazards posed by furniture composites that meet existing regulations.

Despite the UK’s reputation for having some of the world’s most stringent furniture flammability regulations, the study reveals concerning variations in the safety of furniture composites that comply with these regulations.

Associated risks

One of the most striking findings of the study is the widespread use of chemical flame retardants (chemicals applied to materials to prevent the start or slow the growth of fire) constituting up to 10 or 20% of a standard domestic sofa’s composition, equating to approximately two kilograms.

These flame retardants leach out into household dust and the environment and can pose numerous long-term health risks. Some of the associated health effects include carcinogenicity, intellectual disability, reproductive toxicity, and endocrine disruption.

Most fire fatalities stem from the inhalation of toxic smoke from domestic fires involving upholstered furniture.

The study compared various fabrics and filling compositions, including those treated with brominated flame retardants (BFRs), tris(chloropropyl) phosphate (TCPP), low-toxicity expandable graphite coatings, and untreated materials. Samples treated with BFRs and/or TCPP exhibited significantly higher levels of carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and smoke compounds known to be highly toxic in domestic fire scenarios.

Regulatory gaps

The research highlights that the current approach of adding more flame retardants to meet regulatory requirements is not the solution. Instead, it underscores the urgent need for regulatory reform to effectively mitigate fire risks associated with upholstered furniture.

As the UK government reviews its furniture flammability regulations, stakeholders are urged to advocate for balanced measures that prioritize fire safety while reducing exposure to harmful flame retardants.

The Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) is currently evaluating feedback from stakeholders, underlining the urgency for action in response to the research.

Richard Hull, Professor of Chemistry and Fire Science at the University of Central Lancashire who led on the research, commented: “Despite the regulations in place in the UK on fire safety, the proportion of fire fatalities resulting from smoke inhalation must still be addressed. The flame retardants used in furniture not only toxify household dust and the environment, but also make fire smoke much more toxic.

“The research that we have conducted raises the question of why flame retardants which do not improve fire safety are still being added to furniture. Instead, we need to work together with regulators and manufacturers to mitigate the flammability of furniture to ensure they are as safe as possible in the event of a fire.”

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