Sustainable and safe furniture: you can have both - Let's talk bromine
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Sustainable and safe furniture: you can have both

The European Commission is preparing next steps to promote a market transition towards a circular economy. The Sustainable Products Initiative will cover a wide range of consumer products and encourage new thinking about the materials used and design purposes of everyday products to encourage re-use, re-purposing and recovery.  The measure of sustainability has wide implications for how manufacturers make and consumers value products but the drive for sustainability must not diminish safety across a product’s life cycle.

Fire safety is an important dimension of many consumer products and demands thorough consideration as sustainable thinking is brought forward.   Every year, 1250 lives are lost due to residential fires in the EU.   The most dangerous residential fires involve furniture products like couches or upholstered chairs, these fires are swift and severe. 

Modern upholstered furniture is made from highly combustible materials that can be ignited by smoldering cigarettes or small open flames.   Furniture fires can be effectively mitigated by good design however generally speaking the EU lacks robust fire standards for these products. Only Ireland and the UK have protective and proven furniture fire standards. The divergence and low standards in national fire safety requirements in other countries means that more can be done to protect European citizens from dwelling fires.

Fire scientists widely recognize flame retardants, in particular organohalogenated flame retardants, as crucial to achieve better fire resistance in plastics and textiles.

In a recent interview with Dr. Horrocks from the University of Bolton, we discussed how flame retardants are  part of an environmentally sustainable and safe future. The increased use of plastics and contemporary materials such as a diverse range of foams in furniture combined with low fire safety standards means that escape times have been reduced in the past decade and smoke levels from sofas and mattresses are estimated to be 10 times higher than in the early 1980s causing additional hazards and health risks.  Dr. Horrocks explains how flame retardants used in furniture products stop ignition or slow the progression of fires, ultimately saving lives and property. 

In addition, he points to innovative organohalogenated flame retarded solutions for these products that work and can meet sustainability goals.   No effective replacement for brominated flame retardants for furnishing fabrics have been found in the last 20 years.  A major advantage is that flame retardants can be used on all commercial fabrics, at a reasonable cost and to meet existing product performance standards.

Research has demonstrated that flame retardants have a significant impact on fire prevention and smoke reduction.   A recent study from the US Southwest Research Institute in Texas compared furniture sold in France, United Kingdom and United States.   The data showed furniture designed to British standards, the strictest safety requirements, outperformed furniture from the other countries on every fire safety dimension.

National Fire Safety Board recognizes the value of flame retardants

Following the fatal fire in Arnhem (Netherlands), killing 2 people and injuring another 2, the Dutch Safety Board (Onderzoeksraad voor Veiligheid) called on the Dutch government to set fire retardant requirements for furniture because it “really saves lives”. In fact, the current low fire safety standards in Europe mean that flame ignition is still a serious hazard. To this end, prevention is the most important layer on fire safety; it protects people, their property and the environment.

Rene Hagen, Professor in Fire Safety from the Institute for Safety, notes “domestic furniture and mattresses should be able to prevent ignition by different sources on the end use-product.”

Fire safety on the agenda this autumn

The upcoming European Fire Safety Week (29 November – 2 December 2021) provides a good opportunity for further discussions on how to improve fire safety in furniture.  Member States’ furniture fire safety requirements provide minimal protection from very common ignition sources. Fire protection needs to be upgraded to protect public health and to enhance the General Product Safety Directive.

You can find more information about the use and opportunities of brominated flame retardants in textiles in our meet the expert interview with Dr. Horrocks.


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