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FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about Flame Retardants in Furniture

Why are flame retardants used in furniture today?

Flame retardants are used to try to delay ignition. In furniture, they are mainly needed to meet open-flame flammability tests. To place upholstered furniture on the consumer market in the UK or Ireland a producer often needs to use large amounts of flame retardant chemicals in the products. In other Member States, open-flame tests are often requested in the office and public market.

Why is the alliance backing the call for flame retardant free furniture?

The major source of furniture fires is smouldering from cigarettes or electrical sources, not open flames. Smouldering standards are more effective in reducing fire hazard and can be met without flame retardants. Flame retardants cause adverse health and environmental impacts without demonstrated benefits for fire safety [1].

How are we exposed to flame retardants?

Flame retardants are added to furniture foam and/or fabric. The retardants are semi-volatile and they are constantly released into air and then settle into dust, which is ingested by humans and pets. Many of them are bio-accumulative and therefore accumulate in people’s blood and tissues, including placenta and breast milk. Exposure can also occur from ingestion of food contaminated with flame retardant chemicals [2]. 

Who is mostly exposed?

We are all unconsciously exposed in daily life to these chemicals. However, toddlers, lower income households and firefighters are at higher risk of exposure [3]. Consumers from countries where open-flame tests are obligatory are also at risk of being highly exposed, as flame retardants are usually used to meet open flame tests [4].

What are the health risks connected to flame retardants use?

Flame retardants have been found to cause adverse reproductive, genotoxic, immunotoxic, neurotoxic, and/or carcinogenic outcomes in animal studies. In humans they are associated with reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning), reduced fertility, birth defects, and hormonal changes [5]. 

What are the environmental risks connected to flame retardants use?

Flame retardant chemicals can leach into the environment and are found in air, wastewater from homes, and landfill leachates. They have been found in remote areas such as the Arctic and in different species. The chemicals contaminate soil, rivers, the ocean, fish, marine mammals and the food supply [6].

Why not a ban on flame retardants?


A ban is an effective way of eliminating known flame retardants, but other regrettable alternatives can replace them. In the past, banned flame retardants have been substituted by other flame retardants, sometimes with a very similar chemical structure and similar risks [7].

Can furniture be safe without flame retardants?

Fire safety is possible without exposing the consumer to potentially hazardous chemicals. A smouldering ignition requirement can be met without adding flame retardants, while maintaining fire safety [8].

What is the alternative to flame retardants in furniture?

The alternative is a better material combination in furniture and a comprehensive fire safety strategy. Flame retardants have an uncertain effect on fire safety, but expose the consumer to potentially hazardous chemicals. They may even make fire toxicity worse, the principal cause of deaths during fires [9].

What is the best way to reduce fire hazard?
A comprehensive fire safety strategy which does not lead to the exposure of the entire population and the environment to harmful chemicals. Studies report that the most effective way to prevent fires and to reduce harm when a fire occurs is to install smoke alarms. New and renovated houses are more fire proof with fire safety tools such as electronic stove guard and automatic sprinklers. Furthermore, the use of fire safe products such as self-extinguishing candles and cigarettes and stricter inspections of electrical installations increases fire safety. Training and information aimed at at-risk populations could also make a real contribution to the prevention of fires [10]. 

Are some flame retardants safer than other flame retardants?

There are many different flame retardants, with varying degree of potential for harm. Without regulation, producers may choose the easiest way to comply to the requirements – and this might lead to using more harmful substances. Moreover, often large data gaps exist, thus not allowing a comprehensive risk assessment [11].

Do stringent flammability requirements mean the consumer is safer?

There is no clear evidence of the fire safety benefit provided by more stringent regulations. Recent studies have found that it is not possible to link stringent flammability standards to decreases in fire hazard as non-flammability requirements do not demonstrably decrease the number of fire deaths [12].  

Why is it important to act and support the call for flame retardant free furniture?

Because when flame retardants are added to furniture we are all involuntarily exposed to chemicals which harm our health and environment without a demonstrated fire safety benefit.

References: 


  1. ANSES Report 
  2. Visit the Green Science Policy Institute webpage
  3. Toddlers: Flame retardant chemicals cross the placenta and babies are born with the chemicals in their bodies. Babies and toddlers are further exposed from their mother’s milk and household dust, which they ingest at higher levels due to their hand-to-mouth behavior. Young children have been found to have three times the levels of retardant chemicals in their bodies compared to their mothers [reference]. Firefighters: When pentaBDE, Firemaster 550 and other related retardant chemicals burn, they produce high levels of dioxins and furans, compounds that are known to cause cancer. Firefighters have elevated rates of cancers that are associated with exposure to dioxins/ furans [reference]. Lower income household: the average lifetime of upholstered furniture is 30 years and lower income households have older furniture containing flame retardants which are banned today, such as pentaBDE. Thus those with lower income, and especially children, have increasingly high levels of this toxic retardant chemical in their bodies compared to those in higher income households [reference]
  4. For example, median concentrations of the OPFR TCIPP in all UK microenvironments exceeded those reported elsewhere in the world. Moreover, concentrations of TCIPP and TDCIPP in 2 UK car dust samples were – at 370 μg g−1 and 740 μg g−1 respectively – amongst the highest reported globally in indoor dust to date. Consistent with this, concentrations of TDCIPP in dust from UK cars exceed significantly those detected in the other microenvironments studied [reference]
  5. Find a non exhaustive list of scientific references on flame retardant and health here. Additional recent scientific studies here
  6. Find a non exhaustive list of scientific references on flame retardant and environment here. Additional recent scientific studies here
    "Common OP flame-retardants (TDCPP and TCPP) have been detected in wild birds, various fish species, and herring gull eggs in the Great Lakes region". Read EHHI report on flame retardant
  7. Check the petition against flame retardants promoted in USA.
  8. Read the PHD fire safety expert Mr. Babrauskas' response here.
  9. For a scientific analysis of toxicity of flame retardants check the following papers: a) Flame retardants in UK furniture increase smoke toxicity more than they reduce fire growth rate  b) "The fire toxicity of polyurethane foams" c) "Fire Toxicity Assessment: Comparison of Asphyxiant Yields from Laboratory and Large Scale Flaming Fires" d) "Toxic potency measurements for fire hazard analysis"
  10. ANSES Report
  11. Environmental and health screening profiles of phosphorous flame retardants -  The Danish Environmental Protection Agency 
  12. Check the European Commission report here [page 311].

HEALTH

The scientific community has identified many flame retardant chemicals as substances of concern for several adverse effects, such us persistence, bioaccumulation, toxicity, mutagenicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenicity.

ENVIRONMENT

Flame retardant chemicals are known to be very persistant, have a long-standing impact on the environment, and accumulate in the bodies of animals and human beings. Read more about flame retardants' impact on the environment: 

THE SOLUTION

How can you protect your family from exposure to flame retardant chemicals? Read on to find out how European legislators could help solve the problem of adding these chemicals to furniture.