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By Gabriella Kemendi
Gabriella Kemendi is Secretary General at EFIC, the European Furniture Industries Confederation. This article was developed in collaboration with EFIC team and members.
In 2016, EFIC launched the Alliance for Flame Retardant Free Furniture (https://safefurniture.eu/), consisting of stakeholders ranging from environmental NGOs to industry, cancer organisations, fire fighters and labour unions. The Alliance shares and stresses the same concerns about the implications from the presence of harmful flame retardants chemicals in furniture products, and believes that more effective and less harmful ways to achieve fire safety exist and need to be evaluated.
Nowadays, it is difficult for us, as consumers, to know exactly what chemical substances are present in the products we use in our homes and to understand their impact on our health and on the environment.
Do you know, for example, what the furniture in your home is made of? Did you know that it may have been treated with toxic flame retardants? These chemicals are often present in materials like foam or textiles, which contain flame retardants due to governmental regulations, even though many of them have been proven dangerous for human health and the environment.
When toxic flame retardant chemicals are necessary in order to comply with regional or national regulations in the European Union (EU), consumers are left with a smaller range of products with lower quality, higher prices and less durability. Flame retardants are poor ingredients in furniture as the chemicals reduce the quality and comfort of the products, while imposing higher costs in production.
Also, furniture flammability standards that lead to the use of flame retardants bring potentially harmful chemicals into homes, schools, hospitals and workplaces. Such requirements threaten human health, the global environment, and the recycling of furniture in the circular economy. Different flammability standards in Europe also threaten competition and growth in the internal market.
Reducing the use of these substances to the minimum and having a harmonised approach at EU level on the use of toxic flame retardants in furniture is one of the goals of the European Furniture Industries Confederation (EFIC). A harmonised approach on flammability requirements for furniture is also essential in EFIC’s view, within the idea of protecting consumers’ health and the environment.
What are flame retardants?
Toxic flame retardant chemicals are commonly used in furniture and in other products that surround you in your everyday life. They can be particularly found in upholstered furniture, and in larger concentrations in countries like the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland, due to strict regulations on flammability.
Although preventing ignition is one of the main goals for the use of flame retardants, this approach to fire safety is nowadays considered dangerous and old-fashioned. There are serious doubts about the effectiveness of this approach, as toxic flame retardants are often volatile and migrate out of foam. Moreover, the use of toxic flame retardants in furniture reduces the durability of products, resulting in a shorter product lifetime.
These chemicals in furniture also prevent an environmentally responsible end-of-life treatment. Products containing toxic flame retardants cannot be recycled for material reuse, thus preventing a better and greener waste handling and interfering with Europe’s goal of a circular economy.
These chemicals enter the environment in multiple ways. They migrate out of products and accumulate in the environment. Toxic flame retardants are persistent and can be transported for long distances. They migrate during manufacturing, when products are used, or when combustion happens.
Since their introduction, toxic flame retardants have become widespread global contaminants. They have been found all around the world in air, water, soil, dust, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans.
Flame retardants and human health
Exposure to toxic flame retardants is not limited to direct contact with furniture, as these chemicals are released into dust and accumulate in the environment. Among the different categories exposed, toddlers are at a higher potential risk as they crawl around, getting dust on their hands and in their mouths. Workers are exposed when manufacturing or handling products that contain flame retardant chemicals. Fire-fighters suffer from exposure to toxic fumes released from the combustion of materials containing flame retardants.
The scientific community has identified several adverse effects connected to the use of many flame retardant chemicals. Some flame retardants have already been identified as toxic and listed among substances that can cause cancer. Yet, they may be substituted with other similar chemicals, whose effect on human health is not completely known, as many different flame retardants exist. As a matter of fact, the so-called “regrettable substitution” makes their effect potentially more dangerous.
Furniture Industries question the use of Flame Retardants in furniture
The benefits from using toxic flame retardant chemicals have not been proven, but the potential for harm is well documented. Flame retardants can increase fire toxicity in case of combustion.
Nowadays, we know that a high level of fire safety can be achieved in more effective and less harmful ways, including:
• Smoke detectors
• Automatic sprinklers in buildings
• Periodic testing of electrical and gas installations
• Self-extinguishing cigarettes and candles
• Better material combinations in furniture and buildings
• Reduced smoking rates
• Improved fire safety education
Eliminating the use of toxic flame retardants is a long process and important steps have already been taken by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA). Increasing evidence shows that an EU-action in favour of flame retardant free furniture is necessary to ensure protection of human health and the environment, and promote competition and fire safety.
EFIC, together with the Alliance for Flame Retardants Free Furniture, believe that a safe fire safety is possible.
Find more on the Alliance for Flame Retardants Free Furniture here: https://safefurniture.eu/
You can also visit EFIC website on: https://www.efic.eu/
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