23 May 2024, 04:20
By Furniture News Sept 21, 2023

Call to end reliance on chemical flame retardants in UK mattresses

In a consensus statement published today, 15 leading representatives from across the UK’s mattress and furniture industries (including the National Bed Federation, Silentnight and IKEA) have called for more effective and sustainable furniture fire safety regulations, highlighting concerns over the impacts of chemical flame retardants (CFRs) on industry innovation, product recycling, and public and environmental health. 

Last year, scientists warned that the planetary boundary for chemical pollution had been crossed, threatening the planet’s stable states that have otherwise been maintained for the last 10,000 years, states environmental NGO, Fidra. The UN now recognises pollution, including chemical pollution, as one of five main drivers of biodiversity loss, and in recent assessments, 100% of England’s rivers failed chemical pollution tests. With increasing pressure for more effective chemicals management, this timely statement shares the industry’s concerns over CFRs and calls for improved regulation. 

The consensus comes after Fidra hosted a roundtable event for industry experts and policy makers to discuss the UK’s current Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) regulations (FFRs) 1988 and resulting CFR use in mattresses.

The UK holds some of the most prescriptive fire safety requirements for upholstered furniture items in the world, says Fidra, and these requirements are resulting in large volumes of CFRs being used in UK mattresses and other domestic furniture items, contributing to environmental chemical pollution throughout product manufacture, use and disposal processes.

While not mandated, many suppliers and manufacturers use CFRs as a cost-effective way of meeting the FFRs. However, growing doubt over their effectiveness and concerns of their impacts on health, the environment, and the circular economy, has encouraged industries to seek alternatives. 

Concerns over the impact of CFRs on human and environmental health are well documented, with CFRs now ubiquitous in the environment and the UK holding some of the highest human exposure rates in the world, says Fidra, adding that the use of CFRs can also be a burden for industries looking to improve standards of sustainability, by restricting innovative opportunities for reuse and recycling.

"Numerous case studies have shown how continued reliance on chemicals of concern, coupled with a lack of chemical transparency and traceability, can leave recycling efforts vulnerable to materials being contaminated with newly restricted or otherwise harmful chemicals," says the NGO. "This has been highlighted amongst waste upholstered domestic seating (WUDS) items in the UK that have recently been found to contain significant levels of now internationally restricted CFRs. Affected seating items are required to be incinerated rather than going to landfill or being reused or recycled, creating significant challenges for waste management and local authorities, and undermining efforts towards a circular economy."

During the roundtable, pragmatic and promising solutions were presented that have since been outlined in the joint industry consensus statement, which includes recommendations to avoid the use of “harmful chemicals, such as CFRs, wherever possible”, improve standards of chemical transparency and traceability, and amend the FFRs to facilitate a reduction in CFR use and support innovative product design. The UK FFRs are currently being reviewed under a Government consultation that closes on 24th October (see related).

Fidra says the statement echoes growing public demand for a cleaner, pollution-free environment, and stronger commitments on sustainability, adding that while the expert opinions shared in the consensus statement are targeted towards sustainable furniture fire safety, they also offer solutions to wider issues of chemical pollution and product circularity. 

“Chemical pollution impacts us all," says Hannah Evans, senior project officer at Fidra. "To protect both public and environmental health, we need to reduce our reliance on harmful chemicals wherever possible, including chemical flame retardants (CFRs). 

"The effectiveness of CFRs in contributing to fire safety is questionable. We know many are harmful and some have even been banned. Current furniture fire safety regulations are contributing to significant CFR levels found in UK homes and are restricting industry’s ability to use more sustainable alternatives. Lack of chemical transparency and traceability also leaves recycling initiatives vulnerable to contamination with newly restricted chemicals, threatening the success of our circular economy. 

"At Fidra, we are delighted to see the mattress and wider furniture industries’ calling for a reduction in the use of CFRs and improved chemical transparency and traceability. With the government consultation reviewing the UK’s furniture fire safety regulations currently open, we hope their calls will be heard by policy makers and result in meaningful change.” 

Read the report here.

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