Are Flame Retardants in your Mattress and Sofa Killing You?

The Biggest Scandal in UK Product History

This was how an environmental journalist colleague of mine described it to Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Committee in 2018. She then asked us to write a paper for the EAC and on the strength of that, the Committee launched an Inquiry into toxic chemicals in everyday life, with particular attention on the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988. The EAC’s final report agreed with us, that these Regulations have been proven not to work but industry greed has prevented them from being put right, mainly because that would cost them millions in yearly profits.

Meanwhile, UK children are sleeping on mattresses that contain flame retardant chemicals that were banned from sheep dip because they’re so toxic.

My name is Terry Edge, and this website tells the story as it unfolds of the battle against massively powerful industries and corrupt officials in the attempt to put things right.

Below are the current headline points (as of March 2021) and below that is more on what this website is about.

  • ​The UK’s Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 set the toughest flammability requirements for domestic upholstered furniture in the world. In 2014 the Department for Business proved they do not work but is allowing business to block safety changes, the cost of which is that UK homes contain over 1200m kgs of toxic flame retardant chemicals – highest levels in the world in mothers’ breast milk and babies’ blood – which provide little to no fire safety.
  • It has been proven that flame retardants in furniture actually make fires far more toxic: when they burn, they quickly release large volumes of toxic fumes such as hydrogen cyanide, the same gas used in Nazi concentration camps.
  • Millions of UK sofas and mattresses still contain the flame retardant DecaBDE which was banned for being toxic: no warning to the public and, unlike with asbestos, no system for removal and safe disposal – in fact, the Department for Business and Defra is colluding to allow dumping of toxic furniture in landfill to continue rather than charge business with costly safe disposal.
  • Much of the Grenfell Inquiry experts’ input is being controlled by the flame retardant industry, helped by government collusion (especially the Department for Business), in order to prevent the main truth of the fire emerging: that the major element to the toxicity that killed people came from burning flame retardants in upholstered furniture, not from cladding.
  • The Department for Business lied about its investigation into the fridge-freezer that started the Grenfell Tower fire, stating that the product was safe when close inspection of the technical report (which the Department also concealed) shows that in fact it was actually unsafe.
  • Mirroring the USA, the flame retardant industry bought (and buys) high-ranking officials in the UK fire sector who played a prominent role in blocking changes to the Furniture Regulations that would have made them fire-safe and also greatly reduced these chemicals in our furniture, e.g. Bob Graham, Paul Fuller, Dave Sibert, Jon O’Neill and in particular Sir Ken Knight – chair of the Grenfell Inquiry’s independent experts panel who has ignored all requests to look at the role played by the unfit Furniture Regulations in the Grenfell fire.
  • In order to protect the backs of civil servants who colluded with industry 5 years ago to block safety changes to the Furniture Regulations, the government keeps telling everyone that the Regulations work – even though the proof that they don’t is on the Department for Business’s own website!
  • Senior Tory MPs has actively blocked safety changes to the Furniture Regulations in order to maintain industry profits: Oliver Letwin, Matthew Hancock, Sajid Javid, James Brokenshire, Kit Malthouse, with Boris Johnson aware and almost certainly covering them, e.g., he made a mitigating (and totally inaccurate) reference to the Regulations and flame retardants in his opening leadership speech, apparently trying to cover himself should the upcoming EAC report finger such Tory MPs.
  • A corrupt official at the Department for Business leaked information to industry which then instructed Stephen McPartland MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Furniture Industry Group, to threaten the Business Minister, Jo Swinson, with a judicial review if she went ahead with changes to the Furniture Regulations – he was rewarded with a place on the board of Furniture Village and £40K for nominal work input  – and after further pressure from Oliver Letwin and Matthew Hancock, Swinson did indeed choose to delay the changes. Swinson’s husband, Duncan Hames, was also a member of this group.
  • The Environment Audit Committee’s report into toxic chemicals in everyday life (July 2019) found against the Department for Business and recommended that it immediately change the Furniture Regulations to make them fire safe and remove flame retardant chemicals; also, to remove children’s mattresses from scope; but the government responded to in effect say it’s going to do nothing for years to come.
  • In February 2020 BEIS/OPSS held a stakeholder workshop (that I was banned from), the first in five years. The only decision made was a unanimous agreement between stakeholders to remove children’s mattresses from scope immediately. However, the OPSS refused to minute this decision and has ignored it ever since. When I met the lead official on the Furniture Regs, Sarah Smith, a week later, she confirmed under pressure that in effect no changes will be made to these Regs for at least another 10 years. The reason? They have admitted behind closed doors that they know the Regs don’t work but can’t afford to admit it because people will then discover they’ve never worked.
  • In October 2020, OPSS slipped out a “research paper” (with no press release). They’d commissioned a company to interview just 85 members of the public to ask them if they thought furniture labels should list the chemicals inside. Because a few said they didn’t understand chemicals, the OPSS has concluded that they don’t not need to change the existing label. This is almost certainly to cover their backside over the fact that millions of end-life sofas and mattresses are being burnt/dumped/recycled illicitly every year – in breach of the Stockholm Convention – and the government does not want anyone to find out that it is allowing this to happen and has failed to do anything about it for many years.
  • Towards the end of 2020, BEIS/OPSS was hit by a confluence of factors that should have resulted in them finally put an end to poisoning us all in our own homes, albeit at the expense of their incredibly resilient hubris. First, in December, President Trump signed off new US legislation, based on California’s furniture flammability standard, that comes into effect on June 25, 2021. This will effectively remove flame retardants from all US domestic furniture. Second, at around the same time, the UK’s fire services decided to go flat-out on reducing cancers in firefighters, having now got the proof that they suffer the illness at far higher levels than normal. Much of the reason for this are the large volumes of flame retardant chemicals in domestic fires, mainly in furniture, that are highly toxic when they burn. The great work of the London Fire Brigades Union’s Contaminants Group has played a major role in this development. Those who are behind the fire services’ cancer research will be gunning for the Furniture Regulations very soon. You can read more about the FBU’s interim findings here.
  • The OPSS was forced to respond and did so towards the end of 2020. I will analyse this at some point but in brief they are continuing the usual lies, just trying to make it sound as if they’re doing something. They talk about “further research” that needs to be done on for example children’s products before they can take them out of scope of the Regulations. However, they don’t say what this research actually is, when it will be completed or mention the fact that all the necessary research was completed years ago anyway. Furthermore, their “experts” group that decided more research is necessary was put together by BEIS/OPSS in flagrant disregard of government rules and against the advice of other Departments to ensure that 11 of the 12 experts have very strong links with the flame retardant industry. Oh, and the biggest lie is that they are claiming they will have new Regulations in place by next year. This is patently impossible since they have commissioned the British Standards Institute to come up with (completely unnecessary) standards for these Regulations and BSI told them they would need 5 years and they have yet to even start on the work.​

​* * *

I was a civil servant, working on the UK’s Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 (FFRs) from 2004 until December 2015. From 2009 I led on the overall review of the FFRs. From early 2013 to August 2014, as the dedicated expert, I developed a new match test for the FFRs, in conjunction with my Department’s appointed technical advisor, Steve Owen of Intertek. This new test would have made our furniture fire-safe (our research proved that the current test is not safe), greener and cheaper. But the chemical industry would have lost millions. The test remains blocked.
The main purpose of this site is to expose a scandal that affects the health of every person in the country. It is causing possibly thousands of cancers and other illnesses, with children particularly vulnerable. It is something the government had the means to put right more than four years ago. But weak-willed and corrupt civil servants caved into industry pressure and are delaying vital safety changes.

In short, the hugely powerful chemical industry is manipulating UK law so that their products get into our sofas and mattresses in huge amounts – around 30-50 kgs per household (not counting those in carpets, curtains and electrical goods). These flame retardant chemicals are supposed to protect us from fire but there is plenty of proof that they do so poorly or not at all.

The USA changed its sofa flammability laws in 2014. Public pressure won out against the mighty chemical industry and now US citizens can buy furniture free of flame retardant chemicals. But in the UK, we are still stuck with levels of flame retardants in our sofas and mattresses even higher than the USA faced. The breast milk of humans in the UK contains the highest levels of flame retardants in the world.

In September 2016, under pressure from the press, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) put out a consultation document that proposed changes to the UK’s Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988. On the surface, this was the government attempting to finally reduce flame retardants in our furniture. But the consultation was in fact a sham and played directly into the hands of the chemical industry and its allies. BEIS has still not even responded to this consultation and has been stonewalling attempts by various stakeholders to even discuss the matter. 

Update, August 2019: under pressure from intense criticism from the Environmental Audit Committee, BEIS finally responded to its 2016 consultation last month. However, as Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC, put it: all they’ve done in effect is to say they’re going out to consultation yet again. See my blog post of 18th July 2019 for further information.

In short, the Department for Business proved in 2014 that the current ‘match test’ in the FFRs fails in up to 90% of cases. Since then, no evidence at all has been produced against this finding. Which means the vast majority of sofas in the UK are ignitable when they aren’t supposed to be. It also means that the number of lives it’s claimed are saved by the FFRs are completely unfounded, i.e., because the estimates were based on the assumption the Regulations worked.

But even if those assumptions were correct, it requires around million kgs of flame retardant chemicals to possibly save just one life from fire. Research published in Chemosphere in December 2017, proves that a treated UK sofa is more dangerous than an untreated EU sofa, because any escape time afforded by flame retardants (and that is far less than the FR industry claims) is greatly outweighed by the huge amounts of toxic smoke, including hydrogen cyanide, that is produced very soon after a UK sofa ignites.

In October 2018, UK research was published that confirms flame retardants are absorbed through the skin, e.g. you will absorb them into your body just by sitting on your sofa. With UK homes containing the highest levels of FR dust in the world, children and pets are particularly vulnerable since they tend to come into closer contact with it. At the time of writing around 12 US States have banned flame retardants from many products, and California has just banned all varieties of them from juvenile products like mattresses. This leaves the UK as the only country in the world that insists its children sleep on and get carried around in products that are directly leaching toxic chemicals into their bodies.

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