Experts highlight environmental and health risks of current UK fire regulations


Fire retardant label on armchair

Experts, including Professor Frank Kelly, have called for a thorough re-evaluation on the UKs use of fire retardants.

Leading environmental health experts have called for a comprehensive review of the UK's fire safety regulations, with a focus on the environmental and health risks of current chemical flame retardants.

The evidence-based call to action by a group of 13 experts, including Professor Frank Kelly, Battcock Chair in Community Health and Policy, comes in the form of “A New Consensus on Reconciling Fire Safety with Environmental & Health Impacts of Chemical Flame Retardants”, published today (February 28) in the journal Environment International.

Flame retardants are widely used to slow down or stop the spread of fire. They are used regularly in a range of products – from sofas and textiles, to building materials. However, hundreds of studies have reported on the adverse effects of these chemicals, many of which are bioaccumulative and have been linked to wide-ranging health risks including cancer, developmental disorders, and DNA damage.

The UK has some of the highest use of flame retardants in the world and we are all being exposed in our daily lives. Retardants have been found in a range of places – including homes, schools, offices, and vehicles. They have been found in air and dust, in food and drinking water, and on indoor surfaces and textiles, where they can be absorbed through contact with the skin. The authors add this exposure is particularly noted in young children, who crawl around and pick up objects.

They are also found in natural environments, including rivers, lakes, oceans and sediments, as well as in fish, mammals and birds.

"There is understandable concern surrounding the weakening of existing fire regulations, especially in the wake of tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire," said Professor Frank Kelly. "However, it is vital that the use of these chemicals and their effectiveness in preventing fires is balanced with the serious long-term impacts on our health and environment."

The authors point to existing evidence of the deleterious effects of flame retardants on human health, including developmental, behavioral, and neurotoxic effects, endocrine disruption, metabolic disruption, and cancer, among others.

In light of these risks, the Consensus Statement calls for a thorough review of the need for chemical flame retardants, and instead suggests incentivizing industry to develop "benign-by-design" furniture and materials that are inherently less flammable. The Statement also calls for an evaluation of the use of the current open flame ignition test, which is used to assess furniture, with a focus on balancing the reduced fire risk against the widespread risk of exposure to chemical retardants in the environment.

UK Furnishing and Fire Regulations have been under review since 2014 but no revised policy has yet been formally proposed.

Dr Paul Whaley, from Lancaster University and a corresponding author of the statement, said: "There are longstanding concerns about the effectiveness of flame retardants and the health risks associated with them, which the UK Government has never adequately reconciled. This needs to change: there has to be a proper balancing of the harms and benefits of flame retardants, that includes a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of flame retardants as a fire safety measure, with serious attention paid to unintended harms of UK fire safety policy."

‘A New Consensus on Reconciling Fire Safety with Environmental & Health Impacts of Chemical Flame Retardants’


Jack Stewart

Jack Stewart
School of Public Health

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