Flame retardants are being debated by the fire safety science community

Wednesday 27 March 2013

In the latest issue of Fire Safety Science News (March, 2013), experts exchanged views on flame retardants and fire safety. Robert Campbell, Chairman of BSEF, responded to a piece written by Dr Anna Stec and Prof Richard Hull (University of Central Lancashire, UK) in the 33rd Issue of the newsletter (August, 2012) stating that the voice of fire safety scientists and professionals is not sufficiently heard.
Fire Safety Science News Articles

Flame Retardants – Fire Safety Voices Need to Be Heard by Robert Campbell, BSEF Chairman. Issue 34, page 37, of Fire Safety Science News (March 2013)

Fire Retardants and Fire Safety by Anna Stec and Prof Richard Hull. Issue 33, page 19, of Fire Safety Science News (August 2012)

Letter to the Editor in Response to the Article Flame Retardants – Fire Safety Voices need to Be Heard by Robert Campbell, by Dr Anna Stec and Prof Richard Hull. Issue 34, page 38, of Fire Safety Science News (March 2013)

Industrial Contributions to Flame Retardants Debate by Roland Dewitt, Chairman of Fire Safety Committee, Plastics Europe. Issue 34, page 39, of Fire Safety Science News (August 2012)

Flame Retardants – Fire Safety Voices Need to Be Heard

By Robert Campbell, Chairman, Bromine Science and Environmental Forum [1]

In “Fire Retardants and Fire Safety” (Featured Article, FSSN, No 33, pp 19-20), Richard Hull and Anna Stec talk of “a fire retardant debate (that) is polarised between the Green and ‘Industry’ lobbies, with little input from fire safety professionals…”. Unfortunately, the article does little to bring stakeholders closer and in some ways only further polarises the debate.

Flame retardants contribute to fire safety by increasing the resistance to fire of flammable materials such as polyurethane foam used in furniture, synthetic textiles used in cinemas and theatres, insulation foams used in housing and public buildings, and plastic cables used in cars and public transport. If a fire is going to spread it needs flammable materials as a fuel. The increasing use of synthetic materials in public spaces and homes, not withstanding all the tremendous benefits these provide, has resulted in an increased fire load for public buildings and the home[2].

As Chairman of an industry association producing a wide range of flame retardants, I feel strongly that the voice of fire safety scientists and professionals is not sufficiently heard. There is indeed a need for the fire safety community, including fire safety engineers, to stand up for fire safety. Too often broad statements denouncing fire safety standards for inherently flammable materials come from stakeholders with no expertise in fire safety. Indeed, underplaying or even dismissing the need for fire resistant materials is all too convenient for those opposing the use of flame retardants. The Green Science Policy Institute recently lobbied against Europe’s existing standard for external ignition of TV sets alleging that “the proposed requirements do nothing to improve fire safety”[3]. By the same logic, it could be stated that because the frequency and severity of cinema or nightclub fires are less than decades ago, it justifies relaxing the relevant fire safety standards! At times, it seems that the “green lobby” justifies the lowering of fire safety levels by pointing to a lack of adequate statistics on fire safety.

As Richard Hull states in reference to a recent report from the European Commission[4], it is inherently difficult to compare fire safety statistics when these are collected and compiled differently between countries. However, where the most detailed statistical analysis has taken place, the benefits of introducing high fire safety standards are evident. Independent research has shown that flame retardants reduce the impact of fires and the number of fire deaths[5]. A 2009 study carried out for the UK government, showed that in the period between 2002 and 2007 the UK Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations accounted for 54 fewer deaths per year, 780 fewer non-fatal casualties per year and 1065 fewer fires each year following the introduction of the UK furniture safety regulations in 1988 which mandate the use of fire resistant materials[6]. Other reports by reputable experts demonstrate the fire safety benefits of flame retardants [7] [8] [9]. Such data were unfortunately ignored by the very same media reports referred to by Richard Hull and Anna Stec as being “well-researched”.

When it comes to considering the environmental or health impact of flame retardant chemicals, statements are often made that have little meaning in terms of environmental or health risk. For example, while certain flame retardants have been found in dust, they are typically at levels which are below those which regulators view as a health risk and are clearly at levels well below other chemicals found in house dust. This is where Richard Hull’s commentary unfortunately crosses the line into becoming an advocacy piece against whole families of flame retardants. It is regrettable that no credit seems to be given to regulatory assessments in Europe of leading flame retardants which demonstrate that they are safe in terms for the environment and human health [10] [11]. The overly simplistic view that the presence of a certain atom, whether bromine, chlorine or any other is an indication of risk is scientifically unjustified and amounts to scaremongering.

Just as the world of fire science continues to evolve, so does the world of toxicology and environmental science. Tremendous strides have been made in the area of integrating this knowledge into developing flame retardants for the future. Furthermore, under today’s chemical regulatory processes, every new chemical substance (which obviously includes new flame retardants) introduced into commerce must go through a rigorous battery of environmental and health testing. Those results are evaluated by governmental agencies (such as ECHA[12] in the EU) and decisions are made concerning the best practices for managing these substances.

I appreciate that industry is viewed as having a vested interest in the flame retardant debate. This will always be the case. However, we see it as part of our corporate responsibility to further advance scientific understanding so as to ensure a high level of fire safety and environmental protection for all. This is why we have worked with and supported authoritative institutes and individuals such as Environment Agency of England and Wales, the VU University Institute for Environmental Studies, Amsterdam and SP Fire Technology in Sweden.

To some extent, the fire safety community is a victim of its own success. Tremendous strides have been made over the last century in fire prevention, fire suppression and care and treatment of burn victims. But it seems some want to use this success as justification for now reversing some of these standards.

We, like others in the fire safety community, aspire for a day when deaths, injuries and major property losses are a thing of the past. Future generations can benefit from higher fire safety standards just as those of us today have benefitted from the advancements of the last 100 years. But virtual elimination of deaths, injuries and environmental impact of fires will not be achieved by carelessly reversing today’s fire safety codes and standards. I encourage the entire fire safety community to speak up for higher standards and additional research, which will lead to new materials and enhanced approaches to preventing the human and environmental effects of fire.


[1] BSEF is the international organisation of the bromine chemical industry, whose remit is to inform stakeholders and commission science on brominated chemicals such as flame retardants. More information can be found on its website

[2] For more on how materials innovation has created new fire safety challenges, see “Keeping Fire in Check”

[3] Green Science Policy Institute, Yet Another “Candle” Standard for TV Enclosures Rejected in Europe,

[4] European Commission , Final Report 17.020200/09/549040-Evaluation of data on flame retardants in consumer products

[5] Greenstreet Berman Ltd, Research commissioned by Consumer and Competition Policy Directorate, UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), (2009), A statistical report to investigate the effectiveness of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, London.

[6] Greenstreet Berman Ltd., “A statistical report to investigate the effectiveness of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988”, (December 2009). The study was carried out for the UK Department of Business and Innovation skills (BIS).

[7] Simonson, M., Andersson, P., and van den Berg, M., (2006), Cost Benefit Analysis Model for Fire Safety, Swedish National Testing and Research Institute, Borås.

[8] Steinhage,C.C.M., van Mierlo R.J.M., (2010), Efectis Nederland Report:Reaction to Fire Testing Sofas. Efectis Nederland.

[9] Breulet, H., Institut Scientifique de Service Public (ISSeP), (2006), Incendies de Meubles Rembourréset de Matelas: Etude Bibliographique

[11] Summary EU Risk Assessment Report (2008) available at:

[12] The European CHemicals Agency.