Fire Retardants with Phil Reynolds

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I thought for this instalment I would revisit the subject of furnishings fire safety, and the other question I get asked a lot – why do we have to use chemicals in our products to make them fire safe?

It’s an interesting dichotomy. We don’t want to see building fires that start in, or are fuelled by, upholstered furniture. As I noted in earlier columns, fire is a very visual issue, and hence in the UK we have some very stringent standards for the fire safety in furnishings. To ensure these items meet the appropriate fire safety requirements the upholstery materials have to meet a number of ignition requirements.

This sounds like a great idea – stop fires in furniture and save lives. However, whilst the fire safety standards do not specifically require products use chemical fire retardants, the truth of the matter is that in many cases, particularly in higher hazard areas, the only way to meet the requirements is to use chemicals fire retardants in the fillings and as a coating on the fabrics.

What’s the problem? Well, some of the chemicals that were used as fire retardants have been found to be harmful to health or the environment. Indeed, some chemicals have been found to be Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) that do not break down when released in to the environment, and some are either restricted in use, or prohibited. Whilst the chemical fire retardants in use today are legal, and have no restrictions, it is highly likely that more of them may be restricted in the future.

That doesn’t really fit with the well building principle, or environmental sustainability.

So, we have a choice between a very visual hazard, and a slow burning issue (excuse the pun) that may not be fully realised for years and may affect the ability to re-use or recycle product and affect the environment for future generations.

What’s the solution? Well, this is a difficult one. It is possible to make fire resistant furniture, without the use of fire retardants, but this will limit the number and types of materials you can use, and probably increase the cost.

In the standards making arena this is one topic we are trying to grapple with. I believe the answer lies in co-operation throughout the supply chain, ensuring that suppliers and manufacturers the safest fire retardants are used, and that design minimises their use, while maximising fire safety. As standards makers we also need to review the methods we use to demonstrate safety, we have used a cigarette (smouldering) ignition source and match (open flame) ignition source for over 40 years. This is despite the restrictions in smoking inside a building and the improvements in smoke and fire alarm systems.

Should we be considering fires from laptop and phone chargers now? We will have to wait and see.


About Phil Reynolds

Phil, is the Director of independent furniture technical consultancy Furnisafe. Phil is currently chair of BSI committees, FW0, developing furniture safety standards, as well the convenor of two European Standards committees for non-domestic furniture and common test methods for furniture. In addition, Phil sits as the UK expert on numerous European and International standards committees covering both structural and fire safety requirements for furniture, including chairing the European furniture committee developing standards for non-domestic furniture.
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