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No end in sight for harmful flame retardants in our furniture

(20 Posts)
jennymor123 Sun 02-Oct-16 11:10:28

I want to let everyone know that civil servants are preventing changes to the law which would greatly reduce levels of flame retardants in our furniture.

Hundreds of studies show that flame retardants get into house dust, then into our children's blood and mother's breast milk. They can have severely detrimental effects on a child's development. FRs also cause cancers, thyroid problems and other illnesses. Our sofas and mattresses are stuffed with them.

UK homes have very high levels of FRs due in large part to the requirements of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations. Two years ago, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (now called BEIS), published proposals to change the 'match test' in the FFRs. The match test, as it's name suggests, means furniture cover fabrics must not ignite after being exposed to a match flame. This proposal would have cut FRs in cover fabrics by up to 50% overnight and opened the door to new technology that would have quickly eliminated them altogether. Furniture would actually also have been safer from fire (for reasons too complicated to go into here).

The USA changed its furniture laws in 2014, after huge pressure from firefighters (who get more cancers than normal, in the UK too), green scientists, the Chicago Tribune and consumers. Now, US furniture does not need to contain any flame retardants.

In the UK, however, the chemical industry worked on weak-willed civil servants at BEIS and the new test was put on hold.

This, despite BEIS's research having proved that the current match test doesn't work in most cases anyway! Think about that: retailers are selling you sofas stuffed with toxic FRs that aren't even preventing fires as they're supposed to. Worse still, when a sofa catches light, within a very short space of time these FRs give off large amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide (one of the deadliest poisons).

For two years BEIS officials tried to justify their delays by looking for changes they could make to the proposed new test. They failed. A couple of weeks ago, they re-released proposals that are exactly the same as those published two years ago. But there's a catch. In order to cover their backs, they've included other changes to the rest of the FFRs that are unworkable. This guarantees further delays to the new match test, by at least another year but more like several more years.

In the meantime, people are continuing to die in furniture fires that aren't supposed to happen and we're all at risk from cancers from excessive FR dust in our homes.

In the US, consumers lobbied Macy's until the store promised to stop selling furniture containing FRs. In the UK, unfortunately, all our major retailers continue to poison us, knowing their sofas are ignitable anyway.

Highlove Sun 02-Oct-16 19:59:19

Whatever.

Just for the record, it's not Civil Servants who make decisions such as this. It's politicians. The role of Civil Servants is the serve the government of the day - and enact their decisions. If you're going to rant, best direct your ranting at the right people. hmm

yeOldeTrout Sun 02-Oct-16 20:18:16

This 2016 document seems to imply lots of regulations to still follow in USA about fire retardants... state, city, school district.

TrojanWhore Sun 02-Oct-16 20:22:34

The politicians need to make the decisions.

The civil servants simply implement them. And will do so, once there is a political decision.

If you want to protect your family from what is currently stipulated for new, buy second hand furniture.

LIZS Sun 02-Oct-16 20:24:04

Is this the same poster who had a thing about John Lewis sofas?

PinkSquash Sun 02-Oct-16 20:28:24

Flame retardant- stops the spread of fire over a longer period, not that it is unable to ignite. hmm

albertcampionscat Sun 02-Oct-16 21:27:08

What others have said. Ministers (rightly) take decisions, not civil servants.

Witchend Sun 02-Oct-16 23:12:52

Makes Notes:

I must stop licking the sofa when I'm breastfeeding... hmm

jennymor123 Mon 03-Oct-16 09:50:30

"Just for the record, it's not Civil Servants who make decisions such as this. It's politicians. The role of Civil Servants is the serve the government of the day - and enact their decisions. If you're going to rant, best direct your ranting at the right people."

Sorry, I forgot to address that myth to begin with. Yes, of course ministers sign off decisions but they are advised, briefed and steered by civil servants who on the whole are in possession of a whole lot more knowledge than the minister. They are also in constant touch with industry who have their own interests.

Besides, in this case, the minister actually decided to go ahead with the change. The resulting consultation drew more positive responses than negative. The negatives were from the chemical industry, who were going to lose a lot of money from it, who then worked on the civil servants. If you think I'm ranting, check out the consultation returns - they're online. You'll see that there was not one piece of evidence produced to show the new test wouldn't work. Don't take my word for it, a whole group of anti-chemical lobbyists - including Breast Cancer UK, Cancer Prevention Society, CHEM Trust and Greenpeace wrote to the minister to support this move to reduce flame retardants, backed up by research, scientific evidence, etc. But your civil servants who apparently have no power, made sure she never saw the letter; answered it themselves.

And, as said, the fact BEIS has just re-proposed the new test exactly as it was before is clear evidence, I suggest, that they misled their minister when they told her more work needed doing on it following the consultation. No more work was ever done on it, and that was down to civil servants, not ministers.

In the USA, the very powerful flame retardant industry bought officials; and if you think that can't happen here, all I can say is you're possibly suffering from the British delusion of believing that our chaps just wouldn't do that. And again, all this (the US situation) is checkable on line; you don't have to take my word for it.

While you're telling me I'm ranting, just bear in mind that your sofas will remain stuffed with flame retardants that wear off very easily and get into your blood. Babies and young children are of course particularly vulnerable to these kinds of chemicals, because their systems are still forming up.

Second hand furniture may have lost quite a lot of its FR content, but it still has it. That, and much less resistance to fire, of course.

Yes, it was me who posted about John Lewis sofas. I don't have a thing about JL, only that that have been worse than most in pretending they're not selling unsafe sofas. CHEM Trust wrote to them to ask what they planned to do about it - JL took months to reply then just said they comply with the law. Which may actually not be true anyway but even if it is, they know that in this case the law doesn't work; and they could re-structure their sofas in order to make them safe, within the current law. But they choose not to, presumably because cost would be involved.

I appreciate that my style may not be to your liking. However, it's a shame that the UK public, on this thread at least, seems to want to ignore what is actually a massive health threat.

By the way, you don't need to lick your sofa while breast-feeding, because just the act of sitting on it releases FR-laden dust which you then breathe in, which gets into your blood and, well, you can work out the rest if you're so inclined.

If you want to avoid the worst FRs/dust, then buy leather or a company that uses interliners, such as IKEA (no, I don't work for them).

jennymor123 Mon 03-Oct-16 10:00:40

"Flame retardant- stops the spread of fire over a longer period, not that it is unable to ignite."

PinkSquash - this is a highly contentious area. In theory, the cigarette and match tests in the regulations should prevent ignition. However, as the government has proved, the match test doesn't work in around 70% of cases. Which means if you drop a small flame on to your sofa, there's a very good chance it will ignite.

The FR industry say that their products give you more escape time from a fire: up to 14 minutes is what they often claim. However, significantly I suggest, they have never produced any evidence for this. The actual evidence suggests the escape time is more like seconds than minutes.

What the actual evidence also shows - e.g. Professor Richard Hull's work at UCLAN - is that within a very short space of time after your sofa ignites, deadly toxic gases are released which are more likely to kill you (and quicker) than flames. This is especially true if you go to bed and the sofa ignites later (which can happen with cigarette fires). As a Kent fire chief recently said in the news, just three breaths of such fumes will render you unconscious and then you're going to die.

It's possible that the flame retardants used in foam fillings do actually help towards escape time. But it's debatable, and really should be debated. What is now certain is that the current match test for cover fabrics doesn't work, and it's in cover fabrics that you get the really nasty brominated flame retardants.

We should be lobbying the government, via this consultation, to drop the match test and employ just the smouldering/cigarette test, as they do in the USA and the rest of Europe. This will make cover fabrics safer from ignition but doesn't require the use of FRs. Then we should look more closely at the fillings test.

Boneyjoany Mon 03-Oct-16 10:08:27

Could you post a link to a robust peer reviewed paper linking FR to anything sinister?

GladAllOver Mon 03-Oct-16 10:31:09

Leather furniture instead?
You should know that leather is treated with very toxic chemicals, and leather workers suffer from cancer. Leather furniture gives off harmful dust.

Fire retardants were introduced because so many people were burned to death, it was a very necessary measure.

Sorry but I think you have got too worked up about this.

jennymor123 Mon 03-Oct-16 10:42:40

There is a huge amount of research available on this topic. Below are some suggested starting points.

As for peer-reviewed papers, there are literally hundreds, e.g. connected to the two world-wide bi-annual conferences, BFR and Dioxin. Although you have to be members to access the conference papers, you can find work by the scientists involved on the internet.

You could look at the government's own consultation document of August 2014 (for the new match test): it's the fifth document down on the page the link below takes you to; annex 1 contains lots of links to research on the harmful effects of FRs:

www.gov.uk/government/consultations/furniture-fire-safety-regulations-proposed-amendments

For the work of Richard Hull and others on smoke toxicity, go to: www.uclan.ac.uk/news/international-conference-fire-toxicity.php
and download the report.

For research into FRs in house dust Google 'Professor Stuart Harrad'.

The Chicago Tribune's site is also worth checking out. They won the Pulitzer Prize for their work on FRs. The same chemicals (more or less) are at play in the UK.

media.apps.chicagotribune.com/flames/index.html

Other sources for evidence of the harmful effects of FRs:

The Stockholm Convention: chm.pops.int/default.aspx

greensciencepolicy.org/topics/flame-retardants/

wakeupuk.org/

Tony Stefani is a US firefighter (who appears in 'Toxic Hot Seat' - see below). He got cancer and became very interested in the effects of FRs on firefighters, e.g. why they get far more cancers than normal. UK firefighters are beginning to wak up to this fact, too. Tony's site is full of useful info: www.sffcpf.org/wp/

And if you can get hold of it (I'm told there are ways via certain sites), the HBO movie 'Toxic Hot Seat' is well worth checking out.

jennymor123 Mon 03-Oct-16 10:54:45

I'm informed by industry and test houses that leather in sofas is not treated with FR chemicals. It's possible the toxic chemicals you are referring to were those found in sachets included in leather furniture made in China, to prevent rotting during long sea voyages. These have now been banned by the EU.

Most modern leather in furniture is made of leather dust glued together; however, this mixture does not contain FRs - simply because they aren't needed. It is of course, highly possible that anyone breathing in this dust all day while working on leather will suffer all kinds of diseases. And I can accept the possibility that these fumes may get into our house dust too. If so, please let us see the research and if it's convincing, I'll be happy to change my views. But where the Furniture Regulations are concerned leather passes the match and cigarette tests without FRs. No manufacturer is going to pay for FRs (and they are expensive) if they don't have to.

Also, FRs were never introduced because people were burning to death. The Furniture Regulations were introduced, and they do not stipulate the use of FRs. This is a crucial difference. Manufacturers choose to use FRs to meet the test requirements, but they don't have to.

Research - in the US and UK - shows that FRs do not actually always do what they claim to do anyway. And they have extremely toxic side effects.

MiniMum97 Fri 25-Nov-16 01:05:21

I'm really sorry OP that you've had such awful uninformed comments to the helpful and correct information you've provided.

Flame retardants are horrendously damaging to health (one of the worst chemicals you can have in the home).

A number of states in the US have stopped insisting on their use. The regulations are also less strict in Europe resulting in the use of fewer flame retardant chemicals. It is interesting that the reason California changed their laws is because firefighters were becoming ill from the exposure to the chemicals that flame retardants give off when burning. So great, they may burn a bit slower but give off horrible toxic fumes when they do!

My main issue is that I don't want them in MY home. I believe they pose a bigger risk to my and my family's health (by continually exposing us to toxic chemicals on a daily basis) than the risk of a fire (which, awful if it happened, is also very unlikely to happen). I therefore want to be able to choose a sofa, for example, without flame retardants but I have very few options to do this. I have found ONE shop selling sofas which are supposed to naturally meet the rigorous UK flame tests. And they are expensive. People should be able to choose whether they want these chemicals in their home, and not have to take out a small mortgage so they can do so, and have a proper choice of retailers. I would definitely support any campaign to ensure people can choose to not expose themselves to these chemicals. I am shocked at the fact many people (from the posts above!) seem not to care!

MiniMum97 Fri 25-Nov-16 01:08:35

Or perhaps they want to bury their heads in the sand and not face the fact that they and their children have been exposed to these endocrine-disrupting, cancer causing chemicals for many years!

Moodybuggle Fri 25-Nov-16 01:27:09

I DO worry about these things, and hence haven't replaced furniture which really needs replacing and did the whole mattress wrapping thing when I got the cot mattress

But I also can't get too worked up over it after having tried to find suitable alternatives and discovering it's hideously expensive and nigh on impossible to buy a new sofa without FRs. I'm also not keen on the level of EMFs we are exposed to nowadays and a huge number of other stuff in modern life. If I started campaigning though I'd stop living as there's just too much in the modern world I'm not thrilled about and there's no desert island for me to live out the natural organic life I daydream would be a blissful existence - so I just do my best, for my family and try to remind myself not to feel guilty about the possibility of things happening and only allow my head to get seriously upset if I ever have a direct THAT did THAT in terms of harm to my family.

I think most people see the benefit too - they prefer the assurance their stuff isn't a fire risk over the chemical risk. Because most people have heard of house fires causing death directly and virtually nobody can directly prove their sofa FR was what gave them thyroid problems etc

jennymor123 Mon 28-Nov-16 19:50:46

MiniMum97 - thanks for the support. You're right about US firefighters. In the UK, it's a little more complicated. Individual firefighters here are becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of FRs on their health. Unfortunately, some of their union leaders tend to be extremely chummy with the FR industry and its various allies, all scoffing at the trough of funding. Shame on them.

Like you, I don't want FRs in my home. Unfortunately, they're everywhere, even when there is no law requiring their presence or even for fire resistance (e.g. curtains, carpets). Yes, you can find FR-free sofas and mattresses being offered for sale. Unfortunately, many companies producing them cheat, either by including FRs anyway or being FR-free but not complying with the flammability laws. I agree, people should have the choice. It's really good that you would support an anti-FR campaign. Me too! Hopefully, one is on the way.

As for people on this thread who don't seem to care . . . I suspect some of them are actually chemical industry stooges. The ones who aren't; well, I don't know why. Perhaps they don't have young children. Perhaps they think it's just one more thing to worry about - which is true, but I believe the FR threat is much bigger than we think. In essence, UK homes were relatively FR-free up to the 1970s, since when the increase has been truly massive. And many of these chemicals are still in products even though they have been banned or restricted since.

Moodybuggle - I don't have children but I would take the cost and trouble to find FR-free mattresses for them if I did. You could always buy child mattresses from Germany, say, over the internet which shouldn't be too expensive. Also, Cottonsafe Mattresses are now producing a child mattress which is totally FR-free and legal. They have pared down the costs to a couple of hundred pounds, I believe. Yes, that still isn't cheap but given how much people can to spend on other stuff for their kids, like phones and iPads, well . . .

I understand you do not want to campaign. What's needed is a campaign that can guide all of us to take simple actions that will make retailers change their approach. For example, just asking them what flame retardants are in their sofas/mattresses will wake them up pretty sharpish. They will either not want to say or not know; but either way, if enough people pester them about it, they will have to start taking note. I also understand there is enough to worry about. But, as I said earlier, I would definitely take action to buy an FR-free mattress for my children. They are particularly vulnerable while developing to FRs.

Also, while it's true that it's difficult to prove that a particular FR caused a particular illness, there is plenty of research to prove they accumulate in our bodies and that certain illnesses are common in people exposed to common FRs (e.g. firefighters). That and the fact that FRs are often banned by the EU and the US because there is sufficient evidence/association to suggest they are a problem.

I have seen the FR industry's return to the new BEIS consultation, by the way. It is full of lies, evasion and intentional obfuscation, and is particularly absent of facts, evidence and proof. Unfortunately, civil servants there won't understand it, which of course is dandy all round for those intent on ensuring further delays.

albertcampionscat Mon 28-Nov-16 22:33:37

Civil servants stay in post, on average, about 1-4 years. They work collaboratively in pretty fluid teams - a typical submission would need to be cleared by finance, press, legal, as well as by at least a couple of people up the food chain. A moderately important submission might need to be cleared by 20 or 30 people across 2, 3, or more departments. That's before it even gets to ministers, with their private offices and special advisors. So you're not talking about corrupting one or two people. You're talking about corrupting dozens of them and having to corrupt more every year, because all it would take is one honest lass getting the job as maternity cover to blow the whole thing up.

Oh yeah, and on your theory they've bought John Lewis too. And presumably marks and spencer, and dhs, and ikea and....

Doesn't add up.

jennymor123 Tue 29-Nov-16 10:16:13

Everything you say is generally true concerning civil servants. However, in this situation the general template didn't quite apply. Having said that, some of your details are not quite right anyway. For example a 'moderately important' submission would rarely be cleared by 20-30 people. It would be cleared by the senior civil servant for the team concerned, normally a Grade 5. It would probably also be cleared by a lawyer. After that, others would be copied in, but not for clearing purposes. I also didn't say all these people were corrupt. It would only take one to be actually corrupt, in an influential position. This is how the FR industry pulled strings in the US. They identify a key, susceptible target then make him/her an offer, usually in the form of an (unwritten) promise of a well-paid job in their industry once they decide to leave the government. I've said before that a potential blind spot in the UK is the general belief that our government officials would never succumb to that sort of thing.

As for 'one honest lass' blowing the whole thing up: that's exactly what happened in this case. Check the BEIS whistle-blower's page: www.terryedge.weebly.com. I have worked with this man for several years and for what it's worth can confirm that everything he says on his website is true. Certainly, his Department have not been able to provide a single piece of evidence to prove he his wrong. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the government says by way of a response this time.

You don't need everyone in the chain to be corrupt. You just need one or two weak-minded, risk-averse, senior people along with perhaps one who's actually sold out, and the whole chain ends up doing what big business wants it to.

Most civil servants are programmed to protect their jobs first, the public second, whatever else they may say to the contrary. It shouldn't be that way, of course. Without going into the history of the past 40 or so years, dependence on EU law has probably exacerbated their inability to make their own decisions.

I didn't say they'd bought John Lewis. I said (I think) that the FR industry has furniture retailers by the short and curlies. This is because most of them have known for at least two years that they've been selling unsafe products (as proved by the government itself). They didn't act to change the situation two years ago. The reason they didn't act was because the FR/chemical industry sponsored a BBC 'Fake Britain' programme a few months before the 2014 consultation in which sofas/mattresses were alleged to be failing the fire tests. This meant retailers have wanted to keep their heads down ever since. Also, many retailers have been complicit in (ironically enough) the wide-spread practice of undertreatment of chemicals - something the treatment industry has threatened to expose if it is exposed first.

What is demonstrably true is that John Lewis are aware they are selling ignitable sofas but are not willing to do anything about it. And they could: either by changing the design or by pressing the government to bring in the changes proposed over two years ago.

Perhaps we all also need to bear in mind that furniture suppliers are businesses first and foremost. To give you another example: the 2014 consultation exposed the common practice amongst furniture retailers of pressing customers into paying extra to have their sofas Scotchgarded, for stain resistance. It also pointed out that such sprays make the cover fabric highly flammable! Even if retailers were unaware of this fact two years ago, they certainly know about it now. Yet, not only are they still doing it, some are actually now making it a condition of you paying for additional insurance! It's a tight-margins industry and every bit of extra money they can squeeze out of customers will always it seems outweigh any morality about putting consumers at risk.

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