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Cheap chemical flame retardants increase fire deaths

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Professor Richard Hull unveils new research

Breakthrough research has revealed that flame retardants used in domestic furniture increase the amount of toxic chemicals produced when it burns, increasing the likelihood of death following the outbreak of a fire.

The research assessed the flammability of furniture manufactured with and without chemical flame retardants. It discovered that chemicals, added during the manufacturing process in order to comply with strict UK fire safety regulations, cause smoke to become up to three times more poisonous.

Inhalation of toxic gases in smoke is the primary cause of death from fire in the UK. Bromine, a chemical element often used in flame retardants by furniture manufacturers, increases the amount of the two key toxicants, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, when furniture burns.

Researchers also discovered that flame retardants resulted in only a slight delay to the ignition of furniture, with UK standard furniture blazing within just 5-8 minutes. Furniture made specifically to pass UK flammability tests using higher quality materials but without flame retardants took 15-20 minutes before the first flames appeared, a noticeably longer delay than when using the chemical retardant.

The study, published in Chemosphere was carried out by the world-leading fire chemistry and fire toxicity research team at The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in collaboration with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, West Midlands Fire Service, and The University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

We found limited fire safety benefits of adding chemical flame retardants to furniture, and the omission of a smoke toxicity test from furniture flammability regulations ignores the UK’s leading cause of death in fire.

Professor Richard Hull, Lead Researcher and Professor of Chemistry and Fire Science at UCLan, commented: “The gases produced when furniture containing flame retardants burn are highly toxic, yet there are currently no requirements to assess the toxicity of smoke from burning furniture. This means there is no incentive for manufacturers to limit the toxicity of the smoke from their furniture.

“We have very strict flammability tests in the UK, but these simply measure the ignitability. What this does is encourage manufacturers to produce furniture with large amounts of flame retardants as the cheapest way of passing the flammability test. This, ultimately, creates the opposite of the desired effect, and actually makes furniture deadlier in the case of a fire.”

The study comes after a revised flammability test proposed by UK government, which would have reduced the amount of flame retardants necessary to pass the test, was postponed indefinitely.

The UK has the world’s most stringent domestic furniture flammability regulations, which were introduced in 1988 following a sharp peak in fire deaths. Despite the huge increase in smoke alarms and reduction of home-smoking that occurred at the same time, the fall in UK home fire deaths has regularly been attributed to the implementation of these regulations alone.

Yet, when looking at the fire death rates of comparable countries, researchers found that this might not be the case. New Zealand, in particular, has seen similar fire death decreases to those experienced in the UK since 1988, despite having no regulations on furniture flammability.

Hull continued: “We found limited fire safety benefits of adding chemical flame retardants to furniture, and the omission of a smoke toxicity test from furniture flammability regulations ignores the UK’s leading cause of death in fire. This research proves there is a safer option in terms of both the flammability and toxicity of furniture.”

Press Office | 14 December 2017