The urgent need for fire safe upholstered furniture and mattresses in homes
Many fatal residential fires are caused by upholstered furniture and mattresses. Due to an ageing population and renovation wave, these numbers will increase in the EU. There are now several possibilities to make them sustainable, circular and more fire-safe.
What’s the problem?
Every year, around 5,000 people die from residential fires in the European Union, making it one of the largest annual disasters. Because only one or a few people are usually killed per fire, it hardly gets any attention. The last major residential fire at Grenfell Towers in London with more than 70 deaths is still etched in everyone’s memory, but every year we have more than 60 ‘Grenfells’ in the European Union. Research has shown that at least 25% of fatal residential fires are caused by the flammability of upholstered furniture and mattresses. If these products are more fire-safe, this means that up to 1,250 lives can be saved annually. In Europe, few or no initiatives are being taken to do something about this. To make the comparison again with the Grenfell Towers fire; in Europe there is now a lot of interest and initiatives to ban flammable foams on exterior facades, but people still sit and sleep in their homes on the same products.
In addition to the situation and figures outlined above, which in themselves are reason enough not to wait any longer to improve the fire safety of these products, in Europe we are now facing new fire safety challenges that only increase the urgency. Europe is ageing and we know from research that the elderly are about three times more likely to become a victim of fire. With more elderly people in the coming years, the number of victims in residential fires will therefore only increase. Due to mental and physical limitations of elderly, escaping quickly in the event of a fire is often not an option, so the solution must be sought in preventing fire and smoke. Upholstered furniture and mattresses is the biggest contributor to fire and smoke. The urgency for the need for less smoke-propagating products in dwellings also comes from the European need to better insulate dwellings to save energy. Research has shown that this means that in the event of a fire, the smoke propagates faster and more through the dwelling or residential building. Limiting the smoke development of furniture and mattresses has therefore become even more important.
The vision of the fire brigade
The European fire brigades, united in the Federation of European Fire Officers (FEU), have been deeply concerned for a number of years about the many casualties due to fires in upholstered furniture and mattresses in Europe and the slowness or absence of Member States and the European Union to do something about it. In an effort to gain some momentum in this regard, the FEU, with EU financial support, issued a report in line with recommendations on what requirements and tests upholstered furniture and mattresses in European dwellings should meet. For the speed of a possible implementation of this, it was chosen to connect as much as possible with existing (European) test methods and to opt for test methods that do not exclude existing and new solutions to make these products more fire-safe.
Fire safety solutions
How can we improve the safety of upholstered furniture and mattresses? There are several possibilities for this. The most ideal is to do something about the filling material, because that produces the most heat, ensures a rapid expansion of a fire and produces the most smoke. A common solution is to provide the filling with a health- and environmentally-safe flame retardant. REACH provides the possibilities for this. But there are also filling materials of, for example, biobased polyesters, which already ensure a sufficiently limited fire expansion and smoke production without the addition of flame retardants. Covering materials which are difficult to burn or which are fire-retardant or fire-resistant can also be used. Or an interliner can be used between the upholstery and the filling that protects the filling against heat and therefore fire. In short, there are now plenty of possibilities (and already available) to make upholstered furniture and mattresses more fire-safe.
Discussions about regulations to improve the flammability of upholstered furniture and mattresses have so far mostly been dominated by the discussion about the potential dangers of flame retardants to health and the environment. But the REACH and other EU and international regulations that regulate the safe use of flame retardants and the solutions now available without flame retardants give new opportunities to proceed with the necessary regulations. Sustainability and circularity are nowadays often the reason to change materials. Improving fire safety often requires the same solutions, so it can go hand in hand. Let’s take this opportunity.
Lieuwe de Witte is professor of fire safety at the Netherlands Instituut for Public Safety (NIPV).
René Hagen is fire safety specialist at the European Fire Safety Alliance (EuroFSA).
This article is publiced by EURACTIV.com The urgent need for fire safe upholstered furniture and mattresses in homes – EURACTIV.com