Toxic sofas are a secret scandal – and an ‘EU red tape’ bonfire will make it worse

We are thrilled to see an article in the Guardian about flame retardants. Hopefully the word is finally starting to get out to the public about the dangers of these chemicals. We believe that everyone should have a choice, but the first step to this is knowledge. 

Read the article below or on the Guardian website here.

The use of banned flame retardants is widespread, yet our prime minister is hostile towards public protections. 

Everything gets buried by Brexit – that, after all, is the point. It’s the great disrupter and the great distractor. Under the cover of chaos, essential public protections are destroyed. 

Take the scandal that should be creating headlines everywhere: the toxic flame retardants now penetrating the lives of everyone in the UK. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that – as far as government and industry are concerned – is job done. 

Every night, millions of children and adults sleep on mattresses treated with a class of chemicals that was long ago banned from sheepdips and pesticides. Every day, we sit on furniture containing the same toxic compounds, absorbing them through our lungs and skin. According to parliament’s environmental audit committee (EAC), mothers in the UK and the US have the world’s highest recorded concentrations of a toxic class of flame retardants in their breastmilk. Banned fire retardants have recently been discovered in umbilical cord blood. We have no clear idea of how they might affect the development and future health of foetuses. But we know that they are persistent, accumulative and associated with cancer and disruption of the hormonal and reproductive systems. 

Until 2016, when he blew the whistle on spectacular malpractice within government, Terry Edge was the lead civil servant working on fire safety regulations for furniture. His research shows that, owing to decades of industry lobbying, homes in the UK have the world’s highest levels of dangerous flame retardants. It took until last year for mattresses and furniture containing the highly toxic retardant deca-BDE to be banned, under European law, from sale. Instead of prohibiting all such dangerous, persistent organic chemicals in furniture, the UK government has allowed one hazardous pollutant to be replaced by others (TCEP, TCPP and TDCP). 

Even when such furnishings are removed from our homes, the hazard persists, as – in defiance of the Stockholm convention the UK has signed – they are still dumped in landfill or burned in incinerators at temperatures too low to destroy the toxic chemicals they release. Scarcely monitored, with unknown effects, these poisons steadily seep across the nation. 

To make matters worse, far from saving us from fires, flame retardants appear to increase the risk. This is because the furniture containing them produces poisonous by-products when it smoulders, including hydrogen cyanide, dioxins and furans. Since the 1990s, most of the deaths and injuries inflicted by fires in the UK have been caused not from burns but by inhaling toxic smoke. Edge contends that many of the deaths at Grenfell Tower were likely to have been caused by toxic emissions from furnishings but, as a result of the influence of industrial lobbyists, this cause has not been properly considered in the inquiry. A paper in the journal Chemosphere shows that furniture made from tightly woven natural fabrics is no more flammable than furniture treated with flame retardants, and produces far less toxic gas. 

But using flame retardants is cheaper. The rules on how furniture and mattress manufacturers meet government standards are poorly worded and have gone unreformed since 1988. They allow manufacturers to simply slap these chemicals on their products, rather than use other, less flammable methods. Some companies want the regulations changed so they can make safer products and still compete on price. Others are determined to keep using flame retardants despite the dangers. As usual, the government has sided with the careless operators against the responsible ones. 

After the EAC published its report last summer, and the media finally began to take an interest, it looked as if all this might change. But then the issue, like so many others, was bulldozed by Brexit. It has disappeared into what looks like total regulatory chaos. In November a House of Lords inquiry asked a series of questions that the government was unable to answer properly. Nor has it yet been able to respond to a similar set of questions I put to it this week. 

How will synthetic chemicals be regulated in this country after Brexit? Will the UK simply adopt the European system? If so, how will it obtain the information on which EU risk assessment is based? If it doesn’t have this data, how can the government fend off legal challenges from companies seeking to use dangerous substances? Alternatively, will the UK create a system of its own? If so, where is it? Or will this country become a deregulated zone, a dumping ground for chemicals that can’t be sold in the EU? 

If we know anything about this government, it’s that it will find a way accidentally to lose our public protections down the back of the toxic sofa during the turmoil of transition. Already we have seen how the government’s environment, agriculture and fisheries bills seek to replace European rules protecting the natural world with vague promises, financial incentives and handwaving. The government’s new “red tape challenge” suggests it has learned nothing from the way in which similar deregulatory schemes contributed to the Grenfell disaster and other gross failures. Even before we diverge from European standards, under Boris Johnson’s misrule the UK is becoming one of the world’s worst financial secrecy regimes, as the City of London, correctly reading the political signals, provides an ever warmer welcome to tax avoiders and money launderers. 

As Donald Trump has done in the US, Johnson will do to the UK: trading our health and wellbeing for favours to his supporters. Under the cover of chaos, released from European oversight, corporate power accumulates like a persistent toxin in the bloodstream of the nation. 

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