Home>Fire>Legislation>UCLan study exposes failings of UK’s furniture fire safety regulations

UCLan study exposes failings of UK’s furniture fire safety regulations

08 April 2024

RESEARCH CONDUCTED at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has exposed potential inadequacies in the current UK regulations concerning the fire safety of upholstered furniture. The research demonstrates “concerning variations” in fire hazards posed by furniture composites that meet existing regulations.

The UK’s reputation is built on having what are believed to be some of the world’s most stringent furniture flammability regulations in the shape of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988.

However, one of the most striking findings of the study is the widespread use of chemical flame retardants (ie chemicals applied to materials to prevent the start or otherwise slow the growth of fire), which constitute up to 10%-20% of a standard domestic sofa’s composition. That equates to approximately two kilograms.

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

Most fire fatalities in the domestic environment stem from the inhalation of toxic smoke where upholstered furniture is involved.

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

Regulatory gaps

Importantly, the research highlights that the current approach of adding more flame retardants in order 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.

With the UK Government currently consulting on potential amendments to the furniture flammability regulations, stakeholders are urged to advocate for balanced measures that prioritise fire safety, while also reducing exposure to harmful flame retardants.

The Office for Product Safety and Standards is currently evaluating consultation feedback received from stakeholders.

Fire fatalities

Richard Hull, Professor of Chemistry and Fire Science at the UCLan and who has led on the research, informed Fire Safety Matters: “Despite the fire safety regulations in place in the UK, the proportion of fire fatalities resulting from smoke inhalation is an issue that must still be addressed. The flame retardants used in furniture not only toxify household dust and the environment, but also render the smoke produced by fires much more toxic.”  

Professor Hull continued: “The research that we’ve conducted raises the question of why flame retardants, which do not improve fire safety, are still being added to domestic furniture. We need to work together with regulators and manufacturers to mitigate the flammability of furniture and ensure that it’s as safe as possible in the event of a fire.”

The full research report (entitled ‘Variation of Flammability and Smoke Toxicity of Upholstered Furniture Composites with Fire Retardant Treatment’) has been published online by the Journal of Materials Science and Technology. Read it here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmst.2024.02.034

Editorial campaign

Fire Safety Matters recently began an editorial campaign addressing this issue. Launched with the support of independent furniture fire safety expert and consultant Terry Edge, ‘The Campaign for Safe Furniture’ is outlined in the March edition of Fire Safety Matters. Access the digital edition and turn to pages 24-26

Terry Edge also appeared as a special guest on Episode 36 of the Fire Safety Matters Podcast

Access our other News stories covering this vital subject:

FSM - Scrapping furniture regulations “will cost dozens of lives each year” warns FBU (fsmatters.com)

FSM - Consultation launched on fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture (fsmatters.com)