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Opinion Fire safety – government is putting industry needs first

Whistleblower and former civil servant TERRY EDGE warns that fire retardants used on British furniture, far from protecting the public and firefighters, are toxins causing a wide range of illnesses including cancer – and could be the next national scandal in the making

UK firefighters get cancers at 1.6 times the normal rate, due to their exposure to contaminants and fire toxins. At least 12 firefighters who attended Grenfell were diagnosed soon after with incurable cancers.

A largely unknown major source of these contaminants, and one that puts not just firefighters but the entire British population at risk of illness and death, is Britain’s Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988. 

These are the toughest furniture flammability laws in the world and mean that British sofas, mattresses, cushions, prams and buggies, seat pads, etc, contain very high levels of flame retardant chemicals (FRs) — around 50kgs per household. 

Worse still, FR poisoning isn’t just from fires: FR dust easily wears off furniture to be readily absorbed through our skin (babies and pets are particularly vulnerable), causing a wide range of illnesses including cancer. And FRs are even more toxic when they burn. 

I was the lead civil servant on these regulations between 2004 and 2016 and went from believing in their ability to save lives to proving that they don’t work at all, and never have. I became a government whistleblower as a result. 

There are three furniture fire tests: two for covers — “cigarette” and “match” — and one for fillings. Only Britain insists on a fillings test with almost everyone else just having a cigarette test. 

You’d be right to wonder why we need fillings tests when the covers are supposed to prevent ignition. The government itself wondered this too back in the 1980s but let’s just say the flame retardant industry was very persuasive. Very rich, too.

In August 2014, the Department for Business (BIS, now the Department for Business and Trade) published a consultation paper, proposing a new match ignition test for Britain’s furniture regulations, signed by the minister, Jo Swinson. 

In it, she wrote: “The document you are about to read represents the results of around two years of truly collaborative work between BIS, industry, enforcement authorities, the fire rescue services, other government departments and international experts in product testing and chemicals research.”

The changes, she said, would save the furniture industry around £50m per year while reducing FRs in cover fabrics by around 50 per cent (and BIS made it clear the overall aim was to cut FRs entirely). 

I had worked closely on these proposals with Steve Owen, our government technical adviser, and a brilliant analyst of testing procedures. But Owen’s research also produced a technical paper, published by BIS, which amazingly, proved that the regulations do not in fact make your furniture fire safe! To date, no-one has disproved this conclusion.

For years, the immensely powerful FR industry has bullied governments, bribed fire officials and even set up fake consumer fire safety groups to push their products, under the unproven claim that they save lives. 

At a Brussels meeting in 2013, two women from Ikea and the Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI) in California, urged me to look at the evidence against FRs. I agreed, read what they sent me and was horrified.  

The leader of the GSPI, Arlene Blum, invited me to a Brominated Flame Retardant conference in San Francisco where many scientists testified to just how damaging FRs really are. 

Arlene played a key role in the HBO movie directed by Robert Redford’s son, Toxic Hot Seat, which laid the ground for California to get flame retardants out of its furniture, culminating in a US ban enshrined in federal legislation in 2021.

In 2014, I reported to the BIS team that the majority of consultation comments were positive, with no-one producing any evidence our proposals were wrong. 

We could proceed with ministers’ desire to make the changes in April 2015. But my boss, Phil Earl, said we needed to do “more work” and from that point on I found myself battling senior managers who were intent on delaying the changes.

Swinson was frustrated at the split in the team: “All I care about is safety!” she said. 

She asked me to write a paper setting out why the current test doesn’t work and the new one would, instructing my managers not to interfere. 

She said the resulting paper was “excellent” but later allowed herself to be pressed by Matt Hancock and Oliver Letwin into delaying the changes (indefinitely as it’s turned out).

I raised a whistleblowing case and was pushed out of my job. I retired in March 2016, heartbroken that all my work was for nothing. 

I had provided seven hours of testimony and around 400 documents but after eight months nothing happened except the case officer deserted. 

Then the Sunday Times told BIS they were about to publish an article on me, and a mere two hours later, I received the final report. 

It consisted of just one page with four bullet points, only one pertinent: “[The case officer] saw no evidence of a deliberate attempt by senior officials to mislead the minister in the policy team’s submissions to her.”

I complained about this and a few days later received another final report, six pages long and clearly written by one of my managers.

After retiring, I continued to work with people who wanted the changes to come in. And when I saw those horrific black clouds of smoke roiling around the Grenfell Tower in June 2017, I realised that flame retardants would have played a big part in the highly toxic fire and that I would have to get fully back into the toxic hot seat again.

In 2019, environmental journalist Gareth Simkins and I wrote a paper for the environmental audit committee chaired by Labour MP Mary Creagh, which led to the EAC’s Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life inquiry.  

This select committee’s final report agreed that the regulations do not work and that BIS was deliberately blocking changes. It told BIS to bring the furniture regulations in line with the rest of the world, ie employ just a cigarette test, which means no flame retardants.

Angry to discover that Britain fills children’s mattresses with organophosphate FRs, banned from sheep-dip for being toxic, they also insisted BIS take children’s mattresses out of scope immediately.

BIS responded to say it was scrapping the previous 10 years’ review work (read: evidence), much to Creagh’s dismay, and would be starting again, with a view to implementing the EAC’s recommendations. It still hasn’t.

In my testimony to the EAC I named names, including Sir Ken Knight, the government’s go-to safety man. He was appointed chair to the Grenfell inquiry’s independent experts committee, despite me submitting nine pages of evidence for why he should stand down (including that he signed off the Grenfell cladding as safe and played a lead role in blocking changes to the furniture regulations, Sir Ken being very fond of flame retardants).

Sir Ken is still exerting his influence today and despite BIS’s promises to do the right thing, it has recently ensured the furniture regulations will remain unchanged for at least another 10 years. Although it is not telling the public this, of course.

So, why on Earth would civil servants keep in place ineffective safety rules (especially when, for example, the Grenfell fire was more toxic than it would otherwise have been)? 

One reason is money. The regulations make billions for flame retardant producers, chemical treatment appliers, the mighty foam fillings industry, the testing industry and last but by no means least the furniture industry itself which makes a fortune out of the fact that it is not cost-effective for companies outside Britain to sell their furniture here. 

(We were rather naive to think they would jump at the chance to save £50m a year from reduced FRs leading to no FRs, when that would negate the trade barrier which is earning them so much more.)

The other reason is to cover civil servants’ backs. As a BIS official said in an internal meeting a few years ago: “We know these regulations have never worked but if we admit it, then the public will know we didn’t fix them when we could have in 2014.” 

In short, these days the Civil Service and the government always put industry needs first, as outlined in this exchange at the Grenfell inquiry: 

“What would be wrong with letting somebody who had life safety as their absolute priority craft the regulation?” Millett [inquiry solicitor] asked.

“The country would be bankrupt,” Martin [MHCLG official] said. “We’d all starve to death, ultimately, I suppose, if you took it to its extreme … That’s the policy conundrum governments are faced with … you need to balance the cost of regulation with its benefits.”

“So death by fire or death by starvation and that’s for the government to choose between?” said Millett.

So please write to your MP to press the Department of Business to change the regulations. Government is supposed to protect its citizens, so tell them what you really want.

Terry Edge is a government whistle-blower and full-time champion of flame-retardant-free products. He is a freelance fire safety consultant and adviser to the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group and Grenfell survivors groups. He was a civil servant at the Department for Business 2004-16 taking the lead on the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988. He was also joint author of a report that led to an inquiry in 2019 into toxic chemicals (in furniture) by the environmental audit committee. For more information visit his website www.toxicsofa.com.

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