How flame retardants are hurting us

Whilst we all want to be safe from fire, the flame retardants used on many household products and furniture are probably doing us more harm than good

Why use flame retardants?

Did you know that nearly all beds and mattresses that you can buy are soaked in flame retardants? On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense — when synthetic materials were introduced, their inherent flammability led to widespread house fires. In the UK, these issues are addressed in the 1988 fire regulations, the current legislation that specifies the fire safety standards that furniture must meet.

Flame retardants proved to be a simple solution to meeting fire regulations — manufacturers could continue using the same materials by adding chemicals such as PBDEs that would stop them burning.

Major health concerns

Unfortunately it turns out that many of these chemicals also cause significant harm as they are absorbed through breathing, skin contact and ingestion. Biochemist Arlene Blum PhD led early research highlighting the dangers of these flame retardant chemicals. Specifically she found that Brominated Tris, which was being used in children's pyjamas at the time, was a dangerous mutagen that should not be used1. Subsequent studies have linked flame retardants to health problems ranging from cancer to headaches and fatigue2.

Despite this, many dangerous chemicals are still added to furniture, beds, clothing and other household items today. More recently, Dr Blum has questioned the wisdom of substituting one dangerous chemical for another:

Instead of adding new fire retardant chemicals that ultimately may be shown to cause health problems, we should be asking whether we need to use these chemicals or if there are other ways to achieve equivalent fire safety.

So many of the chemicals we have banned in the past were flame retardants — think about asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated biphenyls, tris (2, 3-dibromopropyl) phosphate, PBDEs — they all ended up in the environment and in people, we need to think carefully about adding these sorts of chemicals to consumer products before there is adequate health information.

Arlene Blum PhD3

How effective are they anyway?

The evidence to suggest that flame retardants have reduced the number of deaths from house fires is debatable. The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety conducted an assessment of the risks related to the presence of flame retardants in upholstered furniture and concluded that the effectiveness of UK furniture regulations was difficult to assess because of the role of other factors like the reduction in smoking and increased use of smoke detectors. In fact, when the UK is compared to New Zealand, where there are no domestic furniture flammability regulations, the death rate has been very similar over the last forty years or so4.

Fire deaths per 100,000 population in the UK compared to New Zealand
Fire deaths per 100,000 population in the UK compared to New Zealand

What's more, these substances can actually be very dangerous when they do start to burn — Flame retardant materials output toxic gases including carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide and these may incapacitate those who are trying to escape5. This effect was observed after the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire when a dozen residents needed to be treated for cyanide poisoning.

What's the solution?

Clearly flame retardants can be very harmful to our health, but how can we avoid them?

Recycling and reupholstering old furniture?

Recycling old furniture will certainly reduce your ecological footprint, and since it will have naturally off-gassed over time, concentrations of harmful VOCs emitted will be significantly reduced.

On the other hand, it could be argued that furniture that has fully off-gassed is no longer very fire-resistant. Furthermore, re-upholsterers and those selling second hand furniture are still bound by the 1988 Fire Regulations, so some may be adding flame retardants back into the furniture. At the same time, the foams and glues in furniture usually break down with age, so you can expect more particulates being released into your home.

Buying alternatives

The better option is to find natural alternatives to flame retardant materials. Many traditional materials, like wool, are naturally resistant to fire and can be used as a covering to ensure that items achieve the necessary flame resistance. Meanwhile, vegans may be interested in polyester which is also inherently resistant to fire.

Trusty Canary aims to investigate all the options available, so that you can find the best option for you. We understand that everyone has different needs, so we will be reviewing products based on style and function as well as their organic, ethical and ecological credentials.

Reduce the impact

Whilst replacing items in your home with non-toxic alternatives is probably the best way of improving your internal air quality, that is not always an option. In many cases, it is difficult to justify the expense of replacing recently bought items with non-toxic versions — some may also be concerned at the negative impact on their ecological footprint.

Opening windows is an important part of cleansing the air in your home
Opening windows is an important part of cleansing the air in your home

Often, harmful elements will be unavoidable, for example when toxic materials are used in the fabric of the building. This is why Trusty Canary encourages mitigating the impact of toxic substances in the home with measures including:

  • Improving ventilation
  • Cleaning and dusting regularly with eco-friendly products
  • Adding air-filtering plants
  • Taking low cost measures like covering mattresses with non-toxic barriers

Check in on Trusty Canary

Trusty Canary will be investigating all the information on flame retardants as well as the alternatives and mitigation techniques, so please subscribe to our newsletter to keep updated.

Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. Flame retardant additives as possible cancer hazards. Blum & Ames (1977)

  2. Volatile Organic Compounds' Impact on Indoor Air Quality. Environmental Protection Agency

  3. New Thinking on Flame Retardants. Betts (2008)

  4. How fire-safe is British furniture? BBC News (2017)

  5. Grenfell Tower victims 'poisoned by cyanide' after insulation 'released highly toxic gas' Daily Telegraph (2017)


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