When you buy a sofa, chair or mattress, or indeed a pushchair for your child, do you think about the fire retardant chemicals in the product? More than likely such a thought never crosses your mind and if you do happen to notice the label saying ‘fire-resistant’ on it you may well enjoy peace of mind.
But more people are starting to question the need for furniture sold in the UK to be so heavily treated with flame retardant chemicals, some of which are highly toxic - particularly the brominated ones (BFRs) used to back-coat upholstery fabric; so toxic in fact that DecaBDE, the main BFR for furniture, been banned in the US and heavily restricted in the EU. But UK furniture bought within the past few years will contain high levels of DecaBDE.
House fires in the UK are, mercifully, rare and fires that start in furniture rarer still - in the case of the latter it’s fewer than 50 a year.
The powerful global chemical industry argues that it’s FRs that have made furniture fires such a rarity; however health lobbyists, scientists and green campaigners point to two other factors which explain why sofa fires have become so rare:
* far fewer people smoke in the UK (it’s around 20 per cent of the adult population compared to 75 per cent in the 1960s) and of those who do, they tend to smoke outside rather than in their homes.
* More than 90 per cent of UK homes have a fire alarm.
These factors, says Terry Edge, a former civil servant at the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), now the Dept for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) mean it’s time to re-examine our furniture fire regulations, which were introduced in 1988 and haven’t been revised since. (Though BEIS does have a consultation document out for consideration by industry at the moment.)