Experts demand fire safety policy change over health impact of widely used flame retardants

Leading environmental health experts have called for a comprehensive review of the UK’s fire safety regulations, with a focus on the environmental and health risks of current chemical flame retardants. The health dangers of substances meant to improve fire safety have prompted experts to demand a range of new measures to reduce risk.

Flame retardants are widely used to slow down or stop the spread of fire. They are used regularly in a range of products—from sofas and textiles to building materials. However, hundreds of studies have reported on the adverse effects of these chemicals, many of which are bioaccumulative and have been linked to wide-ranging health risks including cancer, developmental disorders, and DNA damage.

The UK has some of the highest use of flame retardants in the world and we are all being exposed in our daily lives. Retardants have been found in a range of places—including homes, schools, offices, and vehicles. They have been found in air and dust, in food and drinking water, and on indoor surfaces and textiles, where they can be absorbed through contact with the skin. The authors add this exposure is particularly noted in young children, who crawl around and pick up objects.

They are also found in natural environments, including rivers, lakes, oceans and sediments, as well as in fish, mammals and birds. Such widespread use has in part been attributed to the flame ignition tests that are a primary focus of current fire safety regulations. Experts have questioned whether these tests are fit for purpose in reducing fire risk and believe the government’s emphasis on these tests incentivizes the addition of large amounts of fire retardants to products.

The experts say there is also “significant uncertainty” about the extent flame retardants contribute to fire safety, and that there is evidence that flame retardants exacerbate smoke and fire toxicity.

Dr. Paul Whaley, from Lancaster University and a corresponding author of the statement, said, “There are longstanding concerns about the effectiveness of flame retardants and the health risks associated with them, which the UK Government has never adequately reconciled. This needs to change: There has to be a proper balancing of the harms and benefits of flame retardants that includes a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of flame retardants as a fire safety measure, with serious attention paid to unintended harms of UK fire safety policy.”