Fire safety of furniture and electrical & electronic equipment questioned

Recently, publications and press articles initiated by environmental activists in the USA have suggested that furniture containing flame retardants does not contribute to fire safety and that therefore flame retardants are not necessary . This statement is true for furniture involved in an advanced stage of a fire: here, flame retardants can no more prevent these combustible products burning. The real role of flame retardants, however, is to prevent ignition and flame propagation of combustible products by small energy ignition sources such as cigarettes, matches, candles, short circuits and other electrical malfunctions. As most fires are initiated by ignition sources of very low intensity, flame retardants play a determining role in preventing and, if ignition has occurred, in delaying the initiating fire, giving occupants more time to escape and fire brigades better possibilities to fight the fire.  

This is the reason why worldwide fire regulations particularly focus on the very beginning of an initiating fire and refer to many standards covering the basic parameters ignitability and flame propagation in building (small flame test to EN 11925-2), electrical & electronic equipment (flammability test to IEC 60695-11-10 or UL 94 V; glow wire test to IEC 60695-2-10), transportation (various small flame tests) and for furniture (UK: BS 5852-1; California: CA TB 117). These standards help to prevent and delay most initiating fires. The ignition and flammability requirements described therein can be effectively met by using flame retardants.    

Another campaign successfully launched by the environmental activists in the USA was to stop the introduction of a new standard covering fire hazards from external ignition sources for consumer electronics and information technology equipment, because flame retardants would be used for meeting the new standard. Following this campaign, the introduction of the external ignition sources in the standard IEC 62368-1 “Audio/video, information and communication technology equipment - Part 1: Safety requirements” has been rejected in May 2012.

The reason for these campaigns is the allegation that brominated flame retardants in particular and flame retardants in general may be toxic and harmful to the environment. No differentiation is made between single problematic substances and the rest of flame retardants which have not shown to be detrimental to health and the environment. It is alarming to see the repercussions of these campaigns blocking the introduction of external ignition sources in electrical & electronic equipment and leading to a proposal in California to replace the current CA TB 117 small flame tests by a simple smoldering cigarette test, which does not prevent ignition of furniture by a small open flame.  

The systematic negation of ignition and flammability tests because of the use of flame retardants would create a situation ignoring fire safety in the very beginning of an initiating fire. This would cause a dramatic increase of fires initiated by small ignition sources and induce an increasing fire risk for the general public and, as a consequence, lead to more fire deaths.