After almost a year’s work, a scientific consensus has been signed by leading UK scientists on the need to readdress the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals. The consensus, followed by a supporting petition, aims to improve health and environmental conditions surrounding fire safety chemicals.
Flame retardants are a diverse group of substances that are used in a wide range of applications including furniture, building materials, and electronic goods. They can be added to items like textiles and furniture to pass open flame ignition tests that are required as part of the Furnishing and Fire Regulations 1998. The United Kingdom has some of the highest use of flame retardants in the world.
There are growing concerns about their effectiveness in ensuring fire safety and the potential harms they pose to human health and the environment, including exposure in workplaces. Recent studies have exposed the negative health effects caused by flame retardants, including developmental, behavioural, and neurotoxic effects, endocrine disrupting effects, and diabetes risk. Many flame retardants are bioaccumulative and persistent, meaning that people absorb a substance at a rate faster than it is lost or eliminated.
Action for healthier indoor fire safety measures
In response to these concerns, on 13 June 2022, a roundtable of experts was convened by the UKRI Six Clean Air Strategic Priories Fund programme 7. The meeting produced a Consensus Statement that summarises the issues around the use of flame retardants, laying out a series of policy recommendations that should lead to more effective fire safety measures and reduce the human and environmental health risks posed by these potentially toxic chemicals.
In brief summary, the Statement calls on the UK government to:
- Minimise the need for chemical flame retardants by incentivising industry to develop benign-by-design furniture, building materials, and other goods. These should be made from materials that are inherently less flammable than conventional fabrics and foams.
- Adopt a systemic approach to fire safety standards, evaluating the contribution of flame retardants to fire safety in the context of behaviours that initiate fires, factors that affect fire propagation, smoke generation, and toxicity during fires, and vulnerabilities that make people more likely to be harmed in a fire.
- Improve the governance of standards, regulation, and testing of flame retardants and fire safety, ensuring that decision-making includes all stakeholders, and the integrity of deliberative processes is not compromised by conflicted interests.
- Promote a culture of and funding for human environmental health research in the UK, to support the development, synthesis, and interpretation of the multi-disciplinary evidence base that is required for making evidence-informed decisions in complex regulatory environments.
- Ensure that a very high level of certainty about the human and environmental safety of flame retardants is demonstrated before they are approved for use. 6. Develop a labelling system for tracking the use of chemicals in products, including flame retardants, that allows undesirable substances to be easily identified and diverted away from the circular economy.
Interior Design Declares sit alongside Architects Declare and are part of the Built Environment Declares declaration. The group formed two years ago to demand collective action to confront the climate and biodiversity emergencies.
To further support the Consensus Statement, a petition has been started to support better fire safety measures with reduced human and environmental health risk.
Interior Design Declares maps out continued support
The international petition movement group spoke to the importance of balancing both health and climate change in the built environment:
“For everyone working in the design and construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour. Together with our clients, we will need to commission and design spaces within buildings as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.
“The research and technology exist for us to begin that transformation now, but what has been lacking is collective will. Recognising this, we are committed to strengthening our working practices to design spaces with a more positive impact on the world around us.”
IDD plans to:
- Raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the urgent need for action amongst our clients and supply chains.
- Advocate for faster change in our industry towards regenerative design practices and a higher Governmental funding priority to support this.
- Share knowledge and research to that end on an open-source basis.
- Evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown and encourage our clients to adopt this approach.
- Work towards including life cycle costing, whole life carbon modelling and post occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use.
- Work with others in the construction industry to upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice.
- Act to address the disproportionate impact of these crises on disadvantaged communities and ensure that all mitigation and adaptation efforts address the needs of all people.
- Ensure diverse and inclusive principles are implemented in hiring and retaining staff so that people of all backgrounds can participate in decision-making about the future of the designed environment.
- Request 3rd party certification or similar demonstration of environmental provenance and impact for each product specified.
- Adopt more regenerative design principles in our studios, with the aim of designing spaces which go beyond the standard of net zero carbon, including the specification of ultra-low energy appliances.
- Accelerate the shift to low embodied carbon materials in all our work. Seek to reuse and recycle products and materials at every available opportunity.
- Minimise wasteful use of resources in interior design, both in quantum and in detail. Collaborate with all members of the industry to further reduce construction and packaging waste.
We hope that everyone involved in the UK interior design industry will join us in making this commitment.”
UK-based interior design practices are invited to find out more information and support ‘Interior Design Declares’ at hps://www.interiordesigndeclares.co.uk/. Associated suppliers can also be signatories on condition that they have an environmental statement on their website. #interiordesigndeclares. Information on Built Environment Declares is available here: https://builtenvironmentdeclares.com/
Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.