Many fatal home fires are caused by upholstered furniture and mattresses. Due to an aging population and a wave of renovations, these numbers will increase in the EU. There are now several possibilities to make them durable, circular and more fire resistant.
Lieuwe de Witte is professor of fire safety at the Netherlands Institute for Public Safety (NIPV).
René Hagen is a fire safety specialist at the European Fire Safety Alliance (EuroFSA).
What is the problem?
Each year around 5,000 people die in residential fires in the European Union, making it one of the biggest annual disasters. Because only one or a few people are usually killed by fire, it attracts little attention. The last major residential fire at Grenfell Towers in London with more than 70 dead is still etched in everyone’s memory, but each year we have more than 60 “Grenfells” in the European Union. Research has shown that at least 25% of fatal home fires are caused by the flammability of upholstered furniture and mattresses. If these products are more fire resistant, it means that up to 1,250 lives can be saved each year. In Europe, few or no initiatives are taken to do something about this. To make the comparison with the fire of the Grenfell Towers; in Europe there is now a lot of interest and initiatives to ban flammable foams on exterior facades, but people still sit and sleep at home on the same products.
Beyond the situation and the figures mentioned above, which are in themselves reason enough not to wait any longer to improve the fire safety of these products, we are now faced in Europe with new challenges in terms of safety. fire which only increases the urgency. Europe is aging and we know from research that older people are around three times more likely to be victims of a fire. With more elderly people in the coming years, the number of victims in residential fires will therefore only increase. Due to the mental and physical limitations of older people, escaping quickly in the event of a fire is often not an option, so the solution must be sought in fire and smoke prevention. Upholstered furniture and mattresses are major contributors to fire and smoke. The urgency of the need for less smoke-propagating products in homes also comes from the European need to better insulate homes to save energy. Research has shown that this means that in the event of a fire, smoke travels faster and further through the dwelling or residential building. Limiting smoke from furniture and mattresses has therefore become even more important.
The vision of firefighters
European firefighters, united in the Federation of European Firefighters (FEU), have been deeply concerned for several years by the numerous victims due to fires in upholstered furniture and mattresses in Europe and by the slowness or absence Member States and the European Union to do something about it. In order to give some impetus in this regard, the FEU, with the financial support of the EU, has published a report in line with recommendations on the requirements and tests that upholstered furniture and mattresses in European homes 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 solutions and news 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. It is ideal to do something about the filling material, because it is the one that produces the most heat, ensures rapid expansion of the fire and produces the most smoke. A common solution is to provide the filling with a flame retardant that is safe for health and the environment. REACH offers the possibilities. But there are also filling materials, for example made of bio-based polyesters, which already guarantee sufficiently limited fire expansion and smoke production without the addition of flame retardants. Facing materials that are difficult to burn or flame retardant or fire resistant can also be used. Or a spacer can be used between padding and padding which protects the padding against heat and therefore fire. In short, there are now many possibilities (and already available) to make upholstered furniture and mattresses more fire resistant.
Discussions on regulations to improve the flammability of upholstered furniture and mattresses have so far been mainly dominated by discussion of the potential health and environmental hazards of flame retardants. But REACH and other European and international regulations that regulate the safe use of flame retardants and the solutions now available without flame retardants offer new opportunities to make the necessary regulations. Sustainability and circularity are now often the reason for changing materials. Improving fire safety often requires the same solutions, so they can go hand in hand. Let’s take this opportunity.