Steph's Place

Fire Retardants, Safety, Cancer & Kids

The UK has the toughest fire regulations in the world - but at what cost?

America - "the home of the free".

Except, America is not free at all; in many issues, America controls and dominates.

America (or, to be precise American companies and ideologies) want to control everything, and they will often go to any length to get their way - even harming our and our kid's health. I know of numerous examples, but perhaps the biggest scandal dates back nearly thirty-five years. 

In the early 1980's many people died in house fires. The cause was often people leaving cigarettes on a sofa or chair, which then caught fire - the toxic smoke then choking the victims.

Two very senior Fire Service officers lobbied the UK government very hard to change the way furniture was constructed. They blamed the foam filling & fabrics in furniture  - not the ignition source itself - a cigarette.

Principally due to their lobbying and activism, the 1988 "Furniture & Fire Regulations" came into force with manufacturers complying with the new law by pouring fire-retarding chemicals into household products like sofa's, chairs and mattresses amongst hundreds of other products used in the home. The regulations were the highest in the world - and remain so to this day.

But what of those chemicals - those fire retardants, they were safe - yes?

Actually, no, they were not all safe; some later got banned - but many were not. Still used in the UK - but banned elsewhere, including Europe. We had just one follower in our new "improved" fire prevention standards back in the 1980's - the state of California in the US.

Now, of course, none of us wants highly flammable products - but with advances in fire safety, not to mention a considerable reduction in smoking, do we need to put chemicals in furniture? After all, our European cousins consider fire retardants very dangerous - in short, they believe the UK fire regulations are irresponsible. 

The UK government had the option to force tobacco companies to introduce self-extinguishing cigarettes, which were available even in the 1980s - the fire service officers preferred to blame furniture.

Now there is no doubt the officers acted in good faith - what they did not know was the manufacturers of cigarettes were coercing them. 

This alarming information was not made public until a BBC 2 Newsnight investigation was aired on the 13th of December 2017. Newsnight not only broke the story about how the fire officers were 'unknowingly controlled' - but they also pointed out that the fire retardants can make extinguishing a fire (such as at Grenfell) much more difficult because in 'real fire' situations, they become a hindrance not any help - in fact, the smoke becomes exceedingly toxic. How many people died in Grenfell because of fire regarding chemicals, nobody knows - the jury is still out.  

You can read about the Newsnight investigation by clicking HERE

Or see the original report (available via YouTube) by clicking HERE

The Newsnight report, though - only told "half the story."

This is because, at the same time as the "fire regs" were introduced, thousands of kids suddenly started to develop asthma, skin and allergy issues. Not surprising with the benefit of hindsight because even though kids dont smoke - these toxic chemicals were, and still are, put into products like babies prams, newborn car seats and even cot mattresses - in fact, anything that contains a baby. The UK 'fire regs' even cover a stroller, not a product that is a fire risk at all. And to make the legislation a complete nonsense, whilst a newborns car seat has to by law be fire retarded - that seat you sit on in a car - it is exempt, again because the car manufacturers lobbyists got their way. 

Scientific evidence to show flame retardants are dangerous mounts year on year (see links at the bottom of this article), and accredited organisations do know that kids products contain fire retardants.

The Consumer Magazine Which? for example, are forced to ignore toxicity tests of baby and children's products purchased by them in the UK that are subsequently tested in Europe and then fail the standard European toxicity testing standards. They know fire retardants are to blame. This means if a product has high toxicity and is not recommended by European consumer organisations - it could be a Which? 'Best Buy' in the UK. 

Trade associations know too - but their obligation is to their members who have a supply chain well used to the UK's fire regulations. The thought of extra competition from Europe and beyond do not sit well with them - they want to keep fire retardants - it protects their businesses.

But what of the kids?

If there have been any specific scientific studies to link flame retardants directly to our kids' allergies issues, then I am not aware. But there is some very compelling evidence to suggest that is the case. Firstly in July 2014, the Houses of Parliament Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology published a "Post Note" number 467. It states - "Allergies are the most common chronic disorder in children and prevalence has dramatically increased in the last 25 years". Note the date of the Post Note 2014 - subtract 25 years, and we see 1989 - exactly one year after the introduction of the Furniture and Fire Regulations. 

And there is further evidence, we not only have the most strict Fire Regulations, but we also have the worlds third highest Asthma rates in the world, with an estimated one million children having long-term conditions. Perhaps more alarming is that mothers breast milk now invariably contains fire retardants, as reported by The Telegraph on the 16th July 2019 under the headline "Cocktail of chemicals found in UK mothers breast milk due to home furnishings." 

But what of California - they followed us into the fire retardancy chemical oblivion. They started repealing their fire retardancy laws and burning the furniture. The organisation Chemical Watch said:- "Organohalogen flame retardants present significant health risks to consumers as established by overwhelming scientific research."

And what about adults?

There are, in fact, grave concerns from many organisations - Breast Cancer UK, for example, publishing a comprehensive briefing document voicing concern over fire retardants. Around 4,500 women per month are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, and very sadly, about 1000 dont survive.

Their report concluded:-  

"Legacy flame retardants are known to be harmful to human health and the environment, and the limited data on organic flame retardants in current use suggests they could be equally problematic. There is a growing concern amongst scientists worldwide that brominated and chlorinated flame retardants are harmful to human health and the environment and should no longer be used (79). Fire safety is essential in the modern world due to the widespread use of synthetic materials with high flammability. Alternative measures to promote fire safety without risking human health should be a priority, including the increased use of smoke detectors, improved product design which achieves an inherent high fire safety level, and the use of less toxic flame retardants."

To view the full report from Breast Cancer UK, click HERE

So who were the cigarette companies who manipulated those fire officers? This is not entirely clear, but Phillip Morris from the USA is the world's biggest cigarette company. Ironically, several chemical companies from the US are also world leaders in producing fire-retarding chemicals.

America - "the home of the free" - is, in fact, a country that dominates the UK like no other. I cannot help thinking that if self-extinguishing cigarettes had been accepted back in the 1980s, how different everything would have been. 

Fewer blighted lives - fewer deaths - it should have happened, but it didn't. 

But irrespective of who is to blame or who did what, surely it is time we urgently looked at the use of fire retarding chemicals in the UK?

The UK Government has been reviewing the Furniture & Fire laws for years now (the latest response to a consultation being in July 2019). Still, I have no confidence they will ever do much - thanks again to the lobbyists who want to keep the current fire regulation laws and protect big business.  Other governments have seen the light, though. The State of Massachusetts in the US, seeing the dangers banned eleven chemical fire retardants in December 2020.  Click HERE for details. 

In the meantime, our kids - British kids go on suffering from allergies and skin conditions whilst kids in other countries do not suffer as much. Sadly parents can do little to overcome fire retardants - though washing new covers on baby equipment several times before use may help and purchasing mattresses that are naturally fire-resistant - certainly avoid foam ones. In the home, using vacuum cleaners with high-tec filters could prove useful, and sofas with leather coverings, as opposed to fabric ones, may help to retain chemicals. 

And one final word - why is this unique, exclusive article on a trans activist website and not in a magazine or national press?  Because being transgender is just a small part of me. 

You can check out my story on this website or follow me on Twitter @PlaceSteph 




(1) Allergy rates:

(2) Largest cigarette manufacturers:

(3) Pub med (Fire retardancy in clothing):

(4) The Guardian USA (Flame retardants in furniture and cables):

(5) Andrew Weil (Are Flame Retardants Toxic?)

(6) Cotton Safe (20 Points Everyone Should Know About Chemical Fire Retardants In Furniture In The UK): 

(7) The Telegraph Cocktail of chemicals found in UK mothers breast milk due to home furnishings


Updated 18/1/21

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