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Experts call for “comprehensive review” of UK’s fire safety regulations

14 March 2023

LEADING ENVIRONMENTAL health experts have called for a “comprehensive review” of the UK’s fire safety regulations, with a keen focus on the environmental and health risks presented by current chemical flame retardants. Indeed, the health dangers of substances meant to improve fire safety have prompted experts to demand a range of new measures to reduce risk.

Flame retardants are widely used to slow down or stop the spread of fire. They are used regularly in a range of products – from sofas and textiles to building materials. However, hundreds of studies have reported on the adverse effects of these chemicals, many of which are bio-accumulative and have been linked to wide-ranging health risks including cancer, developmental disorders and DNA damage.

The UK exhibits some of the highest use of flame retardants in the world. Retardants have been found in a range of places including homes, schools, offices and vehicles. They’ve been found in air and dust, in food and drinking water and on indoor surfaces and textiles, where they can be absorbed through contact with the skin.

They are also found in natural environments, including rivers, lakes, oceans and sediments, as well as in fish, mammals and birds.

Such widespread use has, at least in part, been attributed to the flame ignition tests that are a primary focus of current fire safety regulations. Experts have questioned whether these tests are fit for purpose in reducing fire risk and believe the Government’s emphasis on these tests incentivises the addition of large amounts of fire retardants to products.

Experts have voiced the view that there’s also “significant uncertainty” about the extent to which flame retardants contribute to fire safety, and that there’s evidence to suggest flame retardants actually exacerbate smoke and fire toxicity.

Health risks

Dr Paul Whaley from Lancaster University explained: “There are long-standing concerns about the effectiveness of flame retardants and the health risks associated with them, which the UK Government has never adequately reconciled. This situation needs to change. There has to be a proper balancing of the harms and benefits of flame retardants that includes a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of flame retardants as a fire safety measure, with serious attention paid to the unintended harms of UK fire safety policy.”

The evidence-based call to action by a group of 13 experts comes in the form of a research paper entitled ‘A New Consensus on Reconciling Fire Safety with the Environmental and Health Impacts of Chemical Flame Retardants’ published in the journal entitled Environment International.

The authors urge the Government to urgently conduct a thorough review of the need for chemical flame retardants want to see an end to any incentivisation for their use. Instead, the authors call for industry to be incentivised to develop ‘benign-by-design’ furniture and materials that are inherently less flammable. They also call for the development of a labelling system to track fire retardants’ use, allowing them to be identified and disposed of safely.

Also among their recommendations is the need to adopt a systemic approach to fire safety rather than a reductionist approach relying on ignition tests.

No time for delay

Professor Ruth Garside from the University of Exeter explained: “The use of flame retardants is problematic at all stages of the lifecycle, potentially even exacerbating smoke and toxicity during fires when they are supposed to provide a safety measure. With no clear labelling system in place, these substances are not disposed of correctly, which means they end up in recycled products.”

Garside added: “A significant proportion of fire deaths are caused by the inhaling of toxic fumes, so there’s no time to delay in reviewing the fire safety regulations. We urge the Government to take prompt action now for the benefit of everyone’s health.”

UK furnishing and fire regulations, such as the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, have been under review since 2014, but no revised policy has yet been formally proposed.

Professor Frank Kelly of Imperial College London, a co-author of the research paper, said: “There is understandable concern surrounding the weakening of existing fire safety regulations, and notably so in the wake of tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire. However, it’s vital that the use of these chemicals and their effectiveness in preventing fires is balanced with the serious long-term impacts on our health and the environment.”

Jamie Page of the Cancer Prevention and Education Society concluded: “Fire safety is a complex and multidisciplinary issue, but the processes are largely dominated by industry. Well-reasoned challenges to current approaches need to be heeded. This will require more inclusive and transparent public consultation processes that will bring together the views of different stakeholders.”