Fire safety chemicals ‘threaten’ public health, alliance warns

Firefighters are affected by flame retardants through their exposure to toxic fumes in the event of a fire. [Heather Paul / Flickr]

The use of chemical flame retardants in furniture to improve fire safety can also have severe implications for public health, a number of associations have warned.

An alliance of stakeholders representing equipment makers, environmental NGOs, cancer organisations, firefighters, and labour unions have expressed concern about the safety of using flame retardants in furniture.

Flame retardants are chemicals which are used in materials, such as plastics and textiles, aiming to prevent or delay the spread of fire.

In the case of furniture products, these chemical substances can be found in foam and textiles (couches, chairs, etc.). While they contribute to fire safety standards, some of them can end up being quite harmful for public health, experts say.

Health impact

The alliance presented their views at a conference in Brussels on 8 September.

Dr. Lisette van Vliet, Senior Policy Officer at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a public health NGO, told that chemical flame retardants were linked to fertility problems, issues in children’s development (birth weight, attention, IQ, coordination), cancers, and other effects on the immune system and metabolism.

Known examples include brominated flame retardants, often used in household textile or furniture, which are listed as of endocrine disrupting chemicals.

“And given that these flame retardants are often persistent―that is they get into our bodies―it’s important to be sure that we are eliminating these flame retardants and achieving fire safety in more effective, less polluting ways,” she said.

Referring to several scientific reports on the issue, the stakeholders pointed out that many flame retardants were responsible for persistence, bioaccumulation, toxicity, mutagenicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenicity.

“Long-term exposure occurring in homes and offices is potentially harmful,” experts said in a policy paper, adding that these substances are released through normal use and settle into dust.

“Exposure is not limited to direct contact with furniture as the chemicals are not bound to the foam,” they write.

Focus on children

Children are considered the most vulnerable target for flame retardants due to the fact that they crawl around and come in contact with dust more frequently.

Denmark’s Environment and Food Minister, Esben Lunde Larsen, recently said that he would propose an EU ban on flame retardants in products that children can come into contact with.

“Children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals, so we must fight so they are not being exposed to dangerous elements,” he warned.

But firefighters are also affected through their exposure to toxic fumes in the event of a fire.

“Firefighters have a higher risk than civilians for a variety of cancers, and we know there is a concern flame retardants contribute to increasing that risk,” Mikael Svanberg from the European Fire Fighter Unions Alliance (EFFUA) said.

According to him, fire safety could focus on other means such as smoke detectors and sprinklers.

Harmonised standards

Currently, there are several different flammability standards and test methods on an EU level, resulting in high production cost for the furniture industry. Due to different standards a furniture manufacturer might need to establish new production lines to adjust to certain European markets.

Roberta Dessi, Secretary General at the European Furniture Industries Confederation (EFIC), told EURACTIV that except the impact on human health and environment, there was also a competition angle.

“The furniture industry wants harmonised flammability standards in Europe that can be met without using flame retardant chemicals in furniture,” she said.

Some flame retardants like HBCDD have already been banned in 2011. The decision was taken under the REACH regulation on chemicals, adopted in 2006 in what has been billed as the most epic lobbying battle in the EU's history. Any company wishing to use the chemicals need to demonstrate they are controlling safety issues, or that the benefits for the economy and society outweigh the risks.

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Other flame retardants are now being listed as potential endocrine disrupting chemicals, which affect the reproductive system. Rising levels of cancer along with increasing brain, thyroid and reproductive problems have led an international group of scientists to call for tougher EU regulation on some chemicals used in everyday life.

89 scientists who signed the 2013 Berlaymont Declaration said current regulations on chemical exposure ignore the possibility that many endocrine disruptors may act without thresholds, causing disruption at any concentration.

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Rising levels of cancer along with increasing brain, thyroid and reproductive problems have led an international group of scientists to call for tougher EU regulation on some chemicals used in everyday life.

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