To prevent the risk of domestic fires in France, alternative measures should be used rather than treating upholstered furniture with flame-retardants

The use of flame retardants (FRs) in mattresses and upholstered furniture to reduce the risk of domestic fires has been a matter of debate for several years. The Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) asked ANSES to investigate the potential health risks that would result from the systematic treatment of domestic upholstered furniture with FRs as a way to reduce the risk of fire and the corresponding number of victims. A first expert appraisal report, published at the end of 2014, concluded that the systematic use of FRs in upholstered furniture would not significantly reduce the severity of domestic fires. The report recommended implementing other measures for managing fire risk. Today, the Agency has published the second part of its expert appraisal, on the related health and environmental risks. The data on the substances used are uneven in terms of both availability and quality and it is consequently impossible to rule out potential toxicity to health and/or effects on the environment. In this context, the Agency advises against the systematic use of FRs to treat domestic upholstered furniture. It recommends focusing on and encouraging the implementation of other fire safety measures in housing, likely to reduce the frequency and severity of fires, and which have proved their effectiveness in countries where they have been implemented.

Each year, domestic fires cause a large number of victims. The use of flame retardants (FRs) in domestic upholstered furniture to reduce the risk of fires is the subject of much debate. The discussions focus on the one hand on their effectiveness against the risk of fire, in particular because of the difficulty of identifying the precise origin of these fires, and on the other hand on the potential risks to health and the environment related to exposure to these chemicals.

The DGCCRF asked ANSES to conduct an expert appraisal of the health risks that would result from the systematic treatment of domestic upholstered furniture with FRs.

A review of the data relating to the alleged effectiveness of FRs in reducing fire risk in the home was the subject of an expert appraisal report published in December 2014. For one thing, there are no reliable statistics on the causes of fires in France. For another, a thorough analysis of the existing data in countries that have adopted legislation leading to the systematic use of FRs (the US and the UK) was unable to identify the specific contribution of the treatment of upholstered furniture to the decline in the severity of domestic fires. The report also put forward a series of proposals that have been confirmed by subsequent studies.

The second strand of the expert appraisal, published today, deals with the potential health and environmental effects of FRs used in upholstered furniture. The objective was to identify the FRs used most widely in upholstered furniture, and to obtain information on their potential effects on health and the environment.

22 chemicals identified, and potential toxic effects on health and the environment

The assessment of the risks presented by the FRs used in upholstered furniture encountered difficulties in accessing certain data relating to the identity of the substances used, to their concentrations, and to their potential migration to the surface of the furniture.

However, 22 substances were identified as being the most widely used as FRs in upholstered furniture. The data concerning their effects on health and the environment are uneven as concerns their availability and quality. However, the expert appraisal showed that, in animal testing, several of these substances have proven or suspected toxicity on reproduction, a potential endocrine-disrupting effect, effects on the thyroid or on the immune system, or are potentially carcinogenic or neurotoxic.
In addition, several substances are highly ecotoxic and/or are poorly biodegradable, in which case they are likely to persist in the environment.

The expert appraisal also showed that most of the FRs are found in indoor environments, the air and dust.

Among these 22 substances, 19 have been registered under the REACh Regulation. For the other three, the toxicity data are very limited or incomplete, or even virtually non-existent.

Thus, for each of these 22 chemicals, the data available is insufficient to rule out a potential toxicity to health and/or effects on the environment.

The Agency's recommendations

In the light of all of these conclusions, the Agency recommends against the systematic treatment of upholstered furniture with flame retardants as a way of reducing the risk of fires in the home.

In particular, the Agency recommends:

  • the systematic collection of information on the causes of fires, possibly in the form of a "national register of causes of fires", to facilitate the targeting of risk situations;
  • the regular maintenance of battery-powered smoke alarms, which have been mandatory in homes in France since March 2015;
  • the periodic inspection of electrical and gas installations in both individual and collective housing;
  • training for and raising awareness among potentially vulnerable populations concerning the prevention of fire risk, as well as the implementation of campaigns for the prevention of domestic fires, followed by an evaluation of their results.

In addition, it appears necessary to identify the substances used as FRs and the concentrations used in the different materials treated, especially those imported into the European Union, and to improve our knowledge concerning their effects on health and the environment.

The Agency also recommends:

  • developing methods for measuring emissions representative of the actual conditions of use of upholstered items;
  • adapting the protocols for measuring emissions and the migration of FRs to the surface to take account of the factors related to the aging of the items treated;
  • carrying out studies analysing the life cycle of treated upholstered furniture to combat the spread of FRs in the environment, and to improve the protection of exposed workers in the recycling industry.