I'm paraphrasing here from the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again". Except that I think Mr Townshend is savvy enough to know that we will very much get fooled again. Especially when the government and industry are working together to put profit before human health and the environment.
On 2nd August, the OPSS published:
Smarter Regulation: Fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture
The main document is headed:
Smarter Regulation: Consultation on the new approach to the fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture
There is of course a lot I could say about this "consultation" (which was somewhat slipped out with no fanfare and little to no warning) but for now, as a rough guide, there are two main things that you need to know.
1. On the day it was published, an industry friend phoned me. Before we'd said hello, we both broke into hearty laughter, as if we were auditioning for the part of a super villain; stopped briefly, then started up again. It was great therapy, so thank you for that, OPSS. Then my friend said, "Er, what exactly is this a consultation on?"
Well, no one appears to know, not even the OPSS. It says it's on a new approach to furniture fire safety. But this is patently not the case, a) because they had been dealing with this problem for many years previous to the Product Safety Review and Smarter Regulation approaches coming along; therefore, the implication that these were the inspiration for making changes to our defunct regulations is somewhat debatable, and b) who goes out to consultation on an "approach" to, er, a consultation anyway? Especially when there are two previous consultations on furniture fire safety – in 2014 and 2016 – which are still in effect outstanding.
2. The OPSS claims that new furniture fire safety regulations will be in place by 1 October 2024. This is highly unlikely if not impossible since feed-back from this consultation will definitely require at least another consultation. Also, the OPSS has without explanation included actual draft proposed regulations in this new release. In contrast to the main approach which is vague to the point of everyone being unclear what they are actually consulting on, these draft regulations are suspiciously specific, e.g. providing actual sizes for what constitutes a scatter cushion and what is a floor cushion (important difference since the latter requires all three fire tests), deciding that mattress covers now come under the furniture regulations when up to now they don't, deciding that outdoor furniture definitely comes into scope (when at present it's ambiguous) and much more. But the point is none of these decisions were made in conjunction with stakeholders, including industry. So, who did make them and on what basis? And of course they will require another consultation on their own.
Being charitable, you might think that all these specifics were included because the OPSS felt bad that after 13 years of reviewing the regulations (which don't work, just to remind everyone), the best they can come up with is a new "approach" to changing them, so have added lots of details to show they are "doing something". Being less charitable, the OPSS must surely know that stakeholders across the board are going to contest these specific changes and therefore there is no way new regulations will be ready to go in one year's time. There is no rationale provided for these proposed changes and being even less charitable, all indications are that the OPSS has no idea at all, for example, about the effect on industry, not to mention public health, that will result from including mattress covers in scope.
And – when they say:
"The new approach is based on safety outcomes, underpinned by a new set of voluntary standards developed by the UK national standards body, the British Standards Institution [sic: it's 'Institute']."
What they're not telling you is that these new standards won't be ready for at least another 8 years or so. In the meantime, the current requirements will remain in place. Which means fire safety regulations that do not work, accompanied by the highest levels of furniture flame retardants in the world, in every UK home.
Now, you may recall at this point that the Environmental Audit Committee concluded in 2019 that these regulations are not fit for purpose and recommended that:
"The Government should bring the UK into line with the rest of the EU and develop a new flammability test standard based on the EU’s smoulder test and California’s standard Technical Bulletin 117–2013. This should be delivered with a clear legislative timetable for the adoption of revised regulations. In the meantime, industry must acknowledge this practice is no longer sustainable and begin the process of innovating and adopting alternatives to chemical flame retardants."
In other words, the government should ditch the open flame/match test and fillings test and do what the rest of the world does and implement just a cigarette/smoulder test which will get rid of flame retardants overnight.
What does the new consultation say about the open flame/match test:
"Ensuring both flaming and non-flaming sources are considered is important because it cannot be assumed that if an article is resistant to one type it will automatically be resistant to another."
Who exactly considers a flame test to be important? Well, certainly the flame retardant industry does since they make a fortune from the masses of very toxic chemicals that go into our furniture cover fabrics. But no one is assuming that because fabric is resistant to cigarette ignition sources it will automatically be match resistant too. The fact is that the government itself proved in 2014 that the match test does not work. And never has. Therefore the question should be: do we need to introduce a match test that works? And here we go, because that's exactly what the government did in 2014! However, since then it's become clear that for many reasons that, as the EAC concluded, a match test is simply not needed.
Now, surely the OPSS consultation refers to the EAC's findings? Well, yes, sort of:
"In 2019, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published their report following an inquiry into Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life. The report spoke of the ubiquity of toxic chemicals and called on the Government to enact a clear plan to address the impact of these chemicals on humans and the environment, and to ensure that the public has greater access to information about chemicals in products. It also specifically addressed the FFRs, calling for the removal from scope of baby products, because of the increased chemical exposure risk faced by young children, and replace the current flammability testing regime."
AND? Have you followed these recommendations, OPSS? Let me help you answer.
There is no "clear plan" to address the impact of flame retardants on humans and the environment or to ensure the public has greater access to information about chemicals in products. In fact, the OPSS commissioned "research" on this subject. They (or rather their agents) asked around 80 consumers what they thought about having more chemical information on furniture labels and because a few said they didn't understand chemicals, the OPSS concluded that there was no need to list FRs etc on furniture labels.
Baby products? Well, the new consultation proposes removing a few small baby products from scope but the EAC was very concerned – horrified in fact – that most children's mattresses contain high levels of toxic FRs and wanted all of them to be taken out of scope. The OPSS is now proposing to take out of scope just very small cot mattresses. Which means it wants children from cot-size age to 13 or so to continue being poisoned in their own beds. They are in essence dangling bait in front of the Baby Products Association hoping to get their approval and therefore "prove" that they are complying with the EAC's recommendations. How cynical is that? And why don't they fully do so anyway? Well, Sarah Smith of the OPSS told me that they didn't want to remove child mattresses before removing all mattresses from scope (presumably since it would be the thin end of the wedge), and these proposals include adult mattresses.
What about the fact that the EAC concluded that the regulations are not fit for purpose?
Well, the OPSS's consultation has an answer to that too:
"The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 have reduced deaths by fire and are recognised and recommended internationally as a gold standard for furniture fire safety to this day."
This is what passes for science from government departments these days, i.e. opinion expressed as fact. There is no evidence at all that the UK regs have reduced fire deaths. Indeed, the UK is only sixth in the furniture fire deaths league, the first five places being taken by countries that do not have any flammability requirements for their furniture. They are not recognised by anyone (other than the flame retardant industry and it's puppet organisations like the European Fire Safety Alliance) internationally as the "gold standard for fire safety to this day". Note, no references or examples are given. But I could give plenty of international examples of those who do not believe our regulations even work, e.g. US firefighters, the Green Science Policy Institute of California, IKEA, the European Furniture Industries Confederation, not to mention just about every UK green lobby group and cancer prevention societies.
To summarise: for 35 years the UK has kept in place furniture fire safety regulations that have never worked. The government knows this through its own research (still available on its website), through confirmation by a government select committee and numerous green and safety groups; plus confirmation by the fact that no one, not even the chemical industry, has been able to dispute this (other than through telling lies). And that the rest of the world is content with fire tests that are significantly less stringent than ours with no lessening of fire safety and which also do not lead to large volumes of toxic flame retardants in their furniture.
Yet now the government has gone out to consultation on a new version of the same old problem: three fire tests which do not work and will lead only to the continuing poisoning of the entire country. And that's after they finally (if ever) actually change anything (see above: getting new standards in place to make the new regs effective is several years away at least).
Why are they doing this? Well, the hubris of civil servants plays a large part; that and the general state in which we now live, with government putting industry profits first, public health and the environment a distant second (examples everywhere, from our sewage poisoned rivers to the disgraceful treatment of Grenfell survivors).
Sorry . . . I can feel maniacal laughter building in my chest again, so we'll leave it here for the time being.