Assessment of the risks related to the presence of flame retardants in upholstered furniture

Update on the effectiveness of flame retardants in mitigating fire risk

Each year, household fires lead to a large number of deaths and injuries, as well as damage to property. The use of flame retardants (FRs) in domestic upholstered furniture to effectively reduce the risk of household fires has been the subject of debate and controversy for several years. The discussions focus on the one hand on their potential effectiveness against the risk of fire and on the other hand on the potential risks to health and the environment related to exposure to these chemicals. In this framework, the Agency decided to launch a comprehensive expert assessment to establish the current state of knowledge on these various topics. The Agency instructed its Working Group on Human and social sciences to study the effectiveness of the use of FRs in upholstered furniture as regards reducing the fire risk in homes. The WG produced a report on the current situation concerning fire risk in France. It also carried out a thorough analysis of the measures taken in the United Kingdom and the United States, two countries that promote the use of FRs. This multidisciplinary approach, involving law, sociology and the economic sciences, contributes to an appreciation of any benefits and risks that may arise from the adoption of legislation leading to an increased use of FRs in domestic upholstered furniture as a means of reducing fire risk. The other aspect of the work conducted by the Agency concerns the identification of the most commonly used FRs, plus a study of their toxicity, their behaviour and their potential for dispersal in the environment. A summary report on all these studies and the Agency's Opinion will be published in the course of 2015.

The frequency and severity of household fires in France, as in other Member States of the European Union, has long been a subject of concern due to their consequences for health and property. This can be seen in the following figures for 2011 in France: 250,000 household fires were reported to insurance companies and there were 76,106 household fires involving the fire services. Household fires caused 459 deaths, 1332 cases of serious injury and 13,350 minor injuries. The use of flame retardants (FRs) in upholstered domestic furniture to reduce the risk of household fires has been the subject of debate for several years. The controversy focuses on the potential risk to health related to exposure of the population to FRs in upholstered furniture for domestic use and on their effectiveness in the event of fire.

There have been attempts since the 1990s to adopt a harmonised regulatory framework in the field of fire safety at the European level, but it has not proved possible to carry through any harmonisation initiatives. Against this background, ANSES was asked by the French Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) to investigate the health risks that would result from a generalisation of the treatment of domestic upholstered furniture by flame retardants (FRs) as a way of reducing fire risk and the number of its victims. Such generalisation raises several questions. To judge the effectiveness of FRs in reducing the flammability of domestic upholstered furniture, ANSES mobilised its Working Group (WG) in Human and social sciences. The WG therefore carried out an analysis of the qualitative and quantitative data available, of the processes and regulatory frameworks, and of the justifications advanced by the various stakeholders (manufacturers, associations, etc.).

The work of the Agency

The Working Group focused on four questions and attempted to document the issues concerned.

What data are available in France on the victims of fires that started in domestic upholstered furniture?

There are multiple sources of data capable of shedding light on the effects of fires on health and property in France (government bodies, research institutes, health agencies, etc.) but the available data are often limited in scope. Fire risk is influenced by multiple determinants of which little is reported in either the studies or the data collected by the services responsible for prevention, such as building quality, the socio-demographic characteristics of the inhabitants, the consumption of tobacco, etc. Fire risk is not equally distributed across the population.

In addition, data on the origin of the fires (match, lighter, electrical failure, etc.) or the nature of the first item to catch fire (upholstered furniture, domestic appliances, etc.) are not systematically reported in France. The available data do not therefore make it possible to quantify the proportion of fires in France in which upholstered furniture constitutes the first item to catch fire in a blaze, nor the number of associated victims.

Are there any data on the effectiveness of FRs in countries that have adopted measures for the prevention of fire risk?

Historically, two countries have had recourse to the use of FRs in upholstered furniture on a massive scale. In California (USA), the processing of upholstery foam with FRs became generalised from 1975. However, the effectiveness of the main FRs used in the treatment of foams used in upholstered furniture has not been demonstrated and has been the subject of controversy since the beginning of the 1980s, especially as a result of their effects on health and the environment. The observed decrease in the number of deaths by fire results from a number of factors, especially the reduction in cigarette-smoking or the introduction of smoke-detectors. The way statistics are compiled in the United States does not allow the relative weight of these cofactors to be quantified. The contribution of FRs to the fall in the number of fires cannot be measured.

In the United Kingdom, regulations designed to reduce the risk of fire due to upholstered furniture were adopted in 1988. In a similar way to the US case, and in spite of very complete statistical data, the cofactors make it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the regulations.

What reduction in the number of victims could be expected in France from treating domestic upholstered furniture with FRs?

In the light of the available data, it is not possible to estimate the reduction in the number of victims that would result from the generalisation of this measure alone.

Are there alternative measures to the treatment of domestic upholstered furniture with FRs, and what can be said of their effectiveness?

There are many factors influencing fire risk. It would be useful to better characterise these factors, and to assess the expected benefits of the various levers of action for reducing the risk of fire. If the socio-economic factors affecting unequal risks of household fire were taken into account, it would become possible to design targeted and probably more effective measures, including the fight against tobacco consumption, improvements to the safety of the housing stock, and training and information aimed at certain populations.

The expert's recommendations

The expert appraisal by the WG highlighted the lack of accurate information or of any scheme for its systematic collection, from which to learn more about the main variables associated with fires in housing in France and their specific causes. This is the reason why it is currently impossible to assess the effectiveness of a public policy on the prevention and reduction of household fires in France. Nor is it possible to characterise the situations and the populations most at risk in terms of household fires, which would enable appropriate and effective measures to be targeted. The experts therefore recommend improving the system for collecting data on fire safety, which are currently patchy.

In addition, in the light of the uncertainties regarding both the effectiveness of treating domestic upholstered furniture with FRs as a means of reducing household fires in France, and the health and environmental consequences that could result from a widespread use of these substances, it seems preferable to insist on a series of alternative measures, some of which have already been initiated, rather than a general measure leading to the exposure of the entire population to these substances:

  • give priority to alternatives to the use of FRs: for example, from 8 March, 2015, housing must be equipped with battery-powered smoke detectors/alarms . It will therefore be necessary to ensure optimum informational support for this measure, which seems to have brought tangible results in other countries;
  • as electrical failures can be a source of fire, stricter inspections of electrical installations could be introduced;
  • information campaigns concerning fire risk were pursued in the 2000s. Training and information aimed at at-risk populations could make a real contribution to the prevention of fires;
  • the standards for fire safety are based on tests that are often unrealistic in relation to the actual circumstances in which household fires occur. It is therefore necessary to design new tests to validate the fire resistance qualities of consumer items.