Last Friday on the Graham Norton show the actor Mark Ruffalo talked about his new film, "Dark Waters". He plays the lawyer Robert Bilott (who was in the audience) who took a major role in the court cases that eventually ruled against the huge US chemical company, Du Pont. For decades, Du Pont had been knowingly poisoning thousands of people by pumping waste into a river. The waste contained the chemical PFOA which is a critical component of Teflon and was proven, after many years and millions of dollars, to have directly caused 6 kinds of critical illnesses in people who it got into, including cancer.
At one point, Ruffalo addressed the studio audience, informing them that PFOA from Du Pont was in the blood of every American and everyone in the room. A strange collective stunned gasp filled the audience. I thought two things:
- PFOA is an organohalogen, as are brominated flame retardants.
- Everyone in that room also has brominated flame retardants in their systems and those from the UK often have the highest levels in the world.
The difference being that while much of the American public is aware of Teflon and flame retardants in their systems, in the UK most of the public is not. The simple reason for this is that industry and government working together here have been more successful at hiding the truth.
It's also possible that the range of scandals covered by the issue of flame retardants used to meet the requirements of UK furniture flammability regulations that don't even work is greater even than Teflon and Du Pont.
It's difficult to boil it all down to simple bullet points so what I thought I'd do is focus on just a few of the events of the past couple of weeks, starting with our discovery of a massive environmental disaster occurring on a daily basis, then describe two workshops held by the Government department chiefly responsible.
PART ONE - THE GREAT INCINERATION SCANDAL
The UK is currently burning millions of mattresses and sofas at the end of their lives in incinerators that are not capable of destroying/neutralising the huge volumes of flame retardants they contain. Part of the reason for this is that landfill - where old mattresses and sofas are traditionally dumped - are filling up and becoming too expensive. Another reason is that the UK is signed up to the Stockholm Convention which requires the safe disposal of furniture containing flame retardants that have been banned or are likely to be banned. The only way to safely dispose of such flame retardants is in incinerators that can destroy them. The Environment Agency reckons this needs to be at 1200C (although Greenpeace says it needs to be higher) but the incinerators currently being used all around the country, many in built-up areas, only burn to 800C.
Bottom line: once all sofas and mattresses are incinerated rather than going to landfill the UK will in effect be suffering the same kind of toxic fire fall-out as approximately 3000 Grenfell Tower fires per year. It's hard to imagine or calculate the enormous negative impact this is having on the environment, not to mention human health.
We found out about this by chance but then did a lot of research to ascertain the truth. For example, I phoned the civil servant at the Environment Agency who is responsible for this issue, and he actually confirmed it's happening. He also said they hopethe incineration will destroy some chemicals but they don't know which ones and aren't sure about flame retardants. Translation: they know flame retardants are not being destroyed or neutralised.
The EA man tried to defend this practice by saying, "What else can we do?'' I said there was a very practical thing he could do to at least stop the future flow of furniture flame retardants polluting the environment: get on to the Department for Business and push them to bring in the changes recommended by the Environment Audit Committee last year, principally to change the Furniture Regulations so as to remove all flame retardants.
"It's not my job," he replied. Then, extraordinarily, admitted he'd been invited to the OPSS/BEIS workshops the following week to discuss the future of the Regulations but wasn't going. He didn't say why.
PART TWO - "IT'S VERY SIMPLE. YOUR NAME ISN'T ON THE LIST"
Finally then, last week the Office of Product Safety and Standards (an agency of BEIS), held a stakeholder workshop to discuss the future of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations. Leaving aside a couple of restricted (mostly to industry) chats in late 2016, this is an incredible 6 years since they proved the Regulations don't work.
And it's 7 months since they replied to the Environmental Audit Committee's recommendations to change the Regs and get rid of flame retardants in our furniture, as well as take children's products out of scope immediately. In their reply to the EAC they said they were going to be working hard with stakeholders over the coming year to put things right. I guess they must be planning an intense last minute 5-month run-in, maybe just to keep the excitement levels up. Will they do it in time? Well, I wouldn't put any money on that; especially when there's so much dosh riding on them continuing to do bugger all.
Ah, but what about all those cuts to the civil service; lack of resources and all that? Well, it doesn't seem to have affected the OPSS. Back in 2013-2014 when an amazing amount of work was done to research, test, consult on and produce a new match test that was not only less toxic but actually provided fire safety, unlike the current one, there was only one person at BIS working full-time on these Regulations. The OPSS now has seven. Similarly, the team looking after product safety back then was around 20 people. OPSS now has 300 working for it on the same subject. What are they all doing? No one really knows.
Anyway, a two-part workshop was scheduled - first in London on Tuesday 4th February, then repeated in Birmingham on 6th February. Each workshop would be for just two hours duration (when someone complained about this being too short to give up a day of their time for, the response was that the workshop was to hear people's views - even though DTI/BIS/BEIS must have heard every view going in the ten years that they have been reviewing these Regulations). Unlike the workshops held before 2015, there was no request for agenda items and no background papers other than a repeat of the vague statements made last year about BEIS's "New Approach". In case you're wondering, this entails taking into account new materials and reducing flame retardants. The current team of 7 plus managers seems to be completely unaware that this is exactly what was done in the 2014 consultation, repeated in the 2016 consultation.
It probably won't come as a huge surprise to readers of this blog that I was not invited to the workshops. I therefore wrote to BEIS to apply for the Birmingham session, listing my credentials. As is the way of officials these days when they don't have an answer, BEIS did not reply. So I wrote again and copied it in to some names that might worry them a bit. This time I received a reply from Sarah Smith, Deputy Chief Executive of the OPSS, presumably having decided that it wasn't wise to completely ignore me.
Now the thing is, I was a civil servant for 27 years so should have been prepared for the various subtle ways civil servants can appear to be saying, "Please do attend" when they're actually saying, "Fuck off", but I was still taken in good and proper by Smith. She did not say you can't come to the workshop. She did say that they were holding a series of events and I was invited to one in Birmingham on the 27th February. I asked around and no one else I knew who was attending the workshop had been invited to these extra ones. In my should-no-better naivety, I took this as a sign that BEIS finally wanted to do the right thing and follow the EAC's recommendations. Clearly, they wanted to meet me separately to get me on board, and on-boarding would have been something I'd have been happy to do if it would lead to them finally putting a stop to the mass-poisoning of the entire UK population.
But then a colleague told me about a business event that the OPSS had held a few months ago in which they'd provided a short update on the Furniture Regs. They had been very gung-ho about in effect continuing to delay for several more years - sorry, to launch the New Approach - so perhaps I needed to read Smith's email more closely. And the person giving the update had actually lost her temper when someone suggested that BEIS should not be working with the British Standards Institute since BSI had turned them down for the same work in 2015 on the basis that they should not be working on regulations; that such work is too political for what is meant to be a neutral standards-making body and one that receives funding from BEIS. I've seen senior civil servants lose their temper before, and it's nearly always when they meet non-civil servants. Inside the service, rank is everything and junior staff soon learn that the way to get a good report and promotion is to agree with absolutely anything a more senior official tells you. Thus, some of them get completely confused when unbrainwashed people challenge them, and anger is often the result.
So I looked again at Smith's email and realised that she could in fact be implying that I wasn't invited to the workshop and the one-hour (yes, just one hour) meeting with me was simply a tick-box exercise so they could say they'd heard Edge's views (and of course ignored them). But I decided to go to Birmingham anyway on the grounds that a) they had not specifically told me I couldn't and b) the London Fire Brigades Union Contaminants Group had separately invited me to the meeting as their technical adviser. One of them had written to the OPSS to inform them of this arrangement and heard nothing back by way of "No, you can't bring your advisor."
So we're outside the door of the OPSS, inside Cannon House, Birmingham, and there is a woman standing by a table of name badges. I go up to her and say, "Terry Edge". Her reaction would not get her a job with MI5 any time soon; that is, she literally jumped in fright, grabbed her phone and got frantically texting. "Is there a problem?" I said. "I'm on it; I'M ON IT!" she shouted.
Obviously, she had been told to expect me. Which means the OPSS had deliberately not told me specifically that I was not invited, even though they knew I probably thought I was. They were prepared for me to travel from London to Birmingham at my own expense only to tell me to fuck off at the door. Why? Well, that may require an analysis of the mind-set of civil servants but in short it's all about back-covering. If they'd actually made it clear I wasn't invited, it would have been in writing on record, which they know would have been widely circulated. By tricking me, I had not objected to being excluded and in their minds that's the same as me accepting their decision.
This theory was confirmed when the Man with the Paper appeared from inside the OPSS. He took me to one side but unfortunately for him I was followed by my two FBU colleagues and a colleague who makes flame retardant free furniture, Mark. What we faced from the Man with the Paper, Duncan Johnson, is the kind of circular reasoning I came up against many times during my battles with senior managers at BEIS. If you want to hear the actual conversation as recorded on a phone (apologies for the sometimes poor sound quality) you can listen to it here.
In essence, an OPSS official called Duncan Johnson appeared outside the door waving a piece of paper. He tried to talk to me separately but my colleagues joined the conversation. He did not introduce himself and only gave us his name when one of us asked for it after a couple of minutes. He at least had a simple line of argument which was I could not go in because my name was not on the list. He did not appear to understand this logic was contradicted when one of the FBU guys pointed out that at the London workshop two days before he'd walked in and taken part without his name being on the guest list.
He was also oblivious to the fact the FBU had been told by the OPSS that they could bring their technical advisor which they had done, which was me. Mark tried to point out that this action would make the OPSS look silly, in that they were turning away someone with enormous experience of the subject to hand with no reason give. Johnson at one point said that the purpose of the workshop was to listen to more than one opinion, thereby upping the absurdity, which possibly peaked when the meeting started and an OPSS official claimed there wasn't enough room there for me. "There's a spare chair right there," said a colleague.
One of the frustrations of dealing with civil servants is that they will never be straight with you. In this instance, they did not have the balls to tell the truth, which is that they didn't want me at the meeting because I'd brought a whistle-blowing case against their department. Instead they act like parents sometimes do, justifying their rules with, "Because I say so." When the lack of logic behind their decision was challenged, he threatened to call Security.
So I didn't go in but in the event barring me back-fired badly on the OPSS. Not only did they expose themselves as operating purely on a back-covering basis, they got hammered massively in the meeting by good people who are frankly tired of their nonsense and, in the case of the firefighters, people who are on the sharp end of toxic fires on a daily basis, hugely contributed to by civil servants.
PART THREE - POISONING CHILDREN AS THEY SLEEP? I NEVER WANTED TO, MATE
At the London workshop, OPSS began by pretty much stating that the Regulations do not work but insisted that was all in the past; they were not going to discuss that; instead, they wanted to rip up the Regulations and start again with their "New Approach".
This was a significant departure from what they have been saying for the past three years, not to mention from the words they've been putting in Ministers' mouths, i.e. that the Minister will not do anything to reducefire safety. Here we see that old sneaky civil service juggling technique. They're trying to imply that they're not starting again because the Regulations don't work but because they have decided not to talk about it. Everyone should just accept that they're finally going to act. Except they're not, as we'll see in a minute.
Besides, the Regulations are a problem now, not just in the past. They don't provide fire safety; they are poisoning just about every person in the country as they sit and sleep, and they're producing millions of kilograms of toxic flame retarded sofas and mattresses that are not being disposed of effectively or legally.
There is another problem with the OPSS writing off the past which is that for the period 2009-2014, an enormous amount of work was done on the review of the Regulations; every stakeholder had their say and every issue was exhaustively discussed. Which means at least another five years are now going to be required if they start again and that's just to repeat what's already been done.
But what's this? The OPPS tells the London workshop that new Regulations will be in place by 2022! There is no other way to describe this than as an out and out lie. Even if they had all their new requirements ready to go now, it would take more than two years to consult on them, write them into law, pass them through Parliament, etc.
The OPSS in any case contradicts itself later by later stating that this timespan may in fact have to be extended because of necessary "testing work". And later, their prediction gets blown out of the water when the representative from the British Standards Institute states that BSI will need at least 5 years to produce the new standards.
But let's take these timings at face value for now:
- Two years for BEIS to consult on and produce requirements for BSI
- Five years for BSI to come up with new standards
- Two years to formerly consult and implement the new Regulations
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, BEIS announced that the current Regulations will remain in place until the new ones are ready.
Which means we face another minimum of NINE YEARS (and fifteen is more realistic) during which UK citizens will continue to suffer the highest in the world levels of flame retardants in their homes, and the environment will suffer from between 3600-5000 equivalent Grenfell Tower fires.
How on earth can this be happening? Well, a couple of years ago, in a private meeting between government officials, a representative from BEIS admitted that they know the Regulations don't work but can't admit it because that would be letting the world know that they've neverworked. This is how many civil servants think: cover one's back first; protect public second. Sorry, the public actually comes third: business interests come second, particularly where BEIS is concerned.
The atmosphere was apparently fairly cosy in London, probably because the majority of business stakeholders present would be extremely pleased to see the current Regulations continue. Ker-ching and all that. But you can probably guess that things were rather more feisty in Birmingham. The OPSS was heavily criticised for excluding me by those with an interest in protecting the public. Those not so were less critical: "No one wants to hear the opinion of Terry Edge," said Peter Wragg of FRETWORK, the man who makes his living by pumping toxic chemicals into our furniture. The same man, by the way, whose only proof that the Regulations work is "The Case of the Pink Cushion" - and no you really couldn't make it up but you can read about it here.
To cut to the quick, one person who has not been educated into the etiquette of such meetings - which is to nod quite a lot, say nothing contentious and go back to company headquarters reporting that it was all "very positive" - did what the OPSS should have done, which was to ask, "Does everyone agree that we need to take flame retardants out of children's products?" which is of course in effect what the EAC recommended: to remove kids' products from the scope of the Regulations.
Perhaps surprisingly, this received unanimous approval. Well, maybe not too surprising. After all, the chemical and furniture industries must know the writing is on the wall. Flame retardants have been banned from children's mattresses and other products in large parts of the USA, and they're not in EU children's furniture either. The EAC was publicly incredulous, even angry, to learn that the UK furniture industry is poisoning our kids as they sleep. But don't be fooled: these people, e.g. FRETWORK and the National Bed Federation, were not agreeing to such a ban because they care about children. If they did, they'd have proposed the same thing at some stage over the past 10 years of the review, and certainly since 2014 when it was proved the Regs don't even work. They're doing it to follow the OPSS: cover their backs for when the public finally finds out what they've been up to in the name of profit.
What happened next was that individuals insisted that they weren't in fact guilty of poisoning children. Mostly they blamed someone else but Peter Wragg claimed he/they had always said this. Well, I'll check my notes when I get time, Peter, but I don't recall you ever suggesting such a thing. Even at meetings where the Baby Products Association was present too, and lobbying for the removal of kids' products from scope. If you can produce evidence that you did indeed express such a desire, I will be happy to apologise.
This agreement is of course a potential breakthrough but OPSS will still need to be chased down. Because they will not be thinking, thank God, kids will soon be poison-free. No, they will be thinking, shit, if we take out kids' products because flame retardants cause harm, what's to stop cries to remove adult products too? And if that happens are backs are well and truly in danger of being uncovered.
Watch this space, as they say.
A final thought: I was speaking to a friend the other day who has dedicated her life to product safety enforcement. She told me she was getting out. "Of the profession?" I said. "No, of the country," she replied. Then went on to say that her job has become impossible because, what the UK public doesn't realise, is that the government, local authorities and councils in this country do not exist to protect citizens, they exist to protect business interests.
PART FOUR - AFTERTHOUGHTS
My friends and colleagues stayed on after the Birmingham meeting finished to speak to various people, including OPSS officials. One colleague mentioned to the OPSS that this is not personal, it's about trying to make fires less toxic. The same OPSS official who'd lost her temper a few months ago replied that in fact it ispersonal. Terry Edge, she said, had treated the department (BEIS) very badly.
This comment again reveals much about the civil servant mentality. The fact is I brought a whistle-blowing case against BEIS purely because my conscience made me. BEIS itself is responsible for whistle-blower policy which clearly states that whistle-blowing is a good thing because it helps institutions to improve. And that any one bringing a case will not be punished for doing so. In my case, BEIS performed very badly, as you can read about elsewhere on this site. They also punished me by sacking me from the job I loved doing. And now, I suggest, they are punishing me again by not admitting me to meetings on a subject I'm an expert in.
There is also the small matter that I was never proved wrong in my whistle-blowing case; the department just in effect waved a piece of paper in my face and insisted it proves I didn't win because it says I didn't.
To conclude: every UK person reading this is being poisoned in their own homes because government officials need to protect their backs from the truth that they have failed to put right regulations they know do not work.
At one point in Birmingham, Alan spoke to the seven OPSS officials working on the Furniture Regulations. He pointed out that Terry Edge was the only person today who'd travelled to the meeting at his own expense, because he believes in protecting the environment and the public. He hoped that they would also find something they believe in.
The tragedy is that if they do, they'll almost certainly face censure and exclusion from their managers whose sole motivation is to protect their careers and pensions. And in at least one case, have accepted a hefty financial reward from the chemical industry to make sure the environment and the public take second place to profits.