Brannhemmende midler i møbler - en trussel eller en nødvendighet?

Bruken av kjemiske flammehemmere i møbler har lenge vært et kontroversielt tema. På den ene siden er muligheten for å gjøre materialer og produkter mindre lettantennelige et gjennombrudd som bør unyttes. På den annen side er det foruroligende at disse stoffene kan være farlige for mennesker og miljø. Storbritannia er et av få land som fremdeles bruker flammehemmende midler i møbler.

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What are Flame retardants?

Flame retardants are chemical materials that can help prevent ignition of furniture fabrics when added to the covers or fillings in the upholstery. The most common ones work by meddling with the burning chemistry of the item, hence hindering the ignition time, burning rate, and heat release rate. Among other places, they can be used on carpets, curtains, upholstery, clothes, and even car seats.

Some commonly used flame retardants employ aluminum hydroxide which have deemed to be safe for use. However, others that include bromine-based flame retardants are the ones that cause the major concern.

Flame retardants have been linked to causing cancer, fertility issues, birth defects, hormonal changes, among other health issues.

Amani Habbal

What are their risks?

A long list of global scientific research has addressed the issue of chemical flame retardants and their effect on human and the natural environment alike. They have been linked to causing cancer, fertility issues, birth defects, hormonal changes, among other health issues. Apparently, the chemicals can migrate from the furniture into the home environment through household dust, thus affecting children mostly and having an impact on animals and the environment, for years to come. Breast Cancer UK have also stated that some of the banned fire retardants are linked to directly causing cancer. Also, the types of flame retardants still in use can affect hormonal levels, including estrogen, thus indirectly causing breast cancer.

A paper entitled “Flame retardants in UK furniture increase smoke toxicity more than they reduce fire growth rate” was published in 2017 to address the issue of toxicity resulting from fire retardants. Through comparing statistics from various tests with different furniture materials, with and without flame retardants, the paper concluded that the tested furniture containing fire retardants burned slower than those without any. However, this resulted in increasing the resulting carbon monoxides and hydrogen cyanides of the chemical reaction, which in turn leads to toxic and poisonous fumes. The tests also showed that the best option of tested materials was those made of fully natural materials (mainly cotton) as they burn much slower and produce much less concentrations of toxic gases.

Based on that, the paper came to the conclusion that fire retardants can have a large effect on bench scale flammability testing and increase the toxicity of the furniture. However, they have been proven to have a negligible effect on large scale fire resting. Nevertheless, the general deduction was that avoiding chemical retardants can result in furniture with an increased level of fire safety.

The Current Law and where it started

The current regulations in the United Kingdom require that furniture items can abide by the fire safety standards through passing a test referred to as the “match test”. This test basically replicates a match or flame of a candle getting in touch with a piece of fabric through placing a flame against the material to be tested for 20 seconds. For a material to pass the test, the ignited fire should die out within a maximum of two minutes. This test was mainly developed after a series of fire incidents due to flammable polyurethane foams in furniture items. Thus, in 1988, the Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations became applicable.

The result of this was furniture manufacturers applying larger than needed volumes of chemical fire retardants to the fabric covers and the foam inserts alike, to ensure passing the test easily, thus exposing the people to higher than required levels of possibly toxic chemicals. While the regulations do not specifically require the use of fire retardants, they make it quite difficult to achieve the compliance levels without them. As furniture manufacturers outside the UK avoid the use of such chemicals, this means that they usually cannot export their furniture into the UK, thus leading to potential trade barriers between the UK and other European countries.

Is the law still applicable?

In 1988, when the above law was introduced, the use of smoke alarms in residential buildings was as low as 8 %. It has since then risen to over 95 %, coupled by the reduction of smoking levels indoors. This indicates that the risk of fire itself has decreased, accompanied by the fact that the majority of deaths in fires is due to smoke inhalation rather than the flames themselves. This poses a lot of questions as to whether the flame retardants are actually the reason behind the increase in toxic smoke. Perhaps this also raises question marks as to when the regulations need to be updated to allow for the major changes in the furniture industry.

Since 1988, toxicology and health research have immensely advanced. This has led to the banning of asbestos and requiring its immediate removal, so why can’t the same be applied to fire retardants that have been linked to major health issues to humans and large effects on the environment.

After a review process that started in 2000, certain changes were applied to the regulation, mainly after a series of full-scale tests, which was not required earlier. The result was proposing the reduction of fire retardants by 50 % of the previously used levels.

Moving Forward

With the outdated versions of the regulations currently present, there is a major need for revamping those to fit the modern systems and requirements. By not implementing a new testing system and improving the current schemes, the British population continues to be exposed to unnecessary and possibly harmful chemicals, a risk already averted by most other European countries.

As the UK has the highest safety requirements in Europe, the furniture in people’s homes should be able to reflect that, all while maintaining the lowest impact possible on human health and environmental aspects.

Litt om journalisten:

Amani er en libanesisk arkitektingeniør med en spesiell interesse for fagfeltet sikkerhet. Hun har også en Mastergrad i brannsikkerhet fra Høgskulen på Vestlandet (HVL), som hun var ferdig med i 2020. Hun har siden begynnelsen av 2021 jobbet som Graduate Fire Engineer ved Arup UK, og skriver med et brennende engasjement, for på fritiden sin.

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