Consumer Guide to Buying Furniture
- Update, July 2019 - how the government's announcement about the future of the Furniture Regulations affects consumers; update April 2020 - don't buy UK!
- Are you more concerned about the fire safety of your furniture or its flame retardant content? Sofas, Mattresses, Baby/child furniture including prams, buggies, car seats
- Vintage/Antique Furniture
- The Furniture Ombudsman
- John Lewis is lying to you
- How to sleep safely - don't ask Sir Ken!
I'll try to keep this guide straightforward, and add detail to it later in response to specific points anyone raises. I will give you what I've learned in 15 years of working in this field, as simply as possible. But be warned: there aren't always straightforward answers; sometimes, you may have to choose between more or less of one kind of safety against another.
I am not paid for producing this guide and I do not work for any business interests. My only concern is in providing accurate information to consumers, especially since for various reasons it's very difficult to get hold of it anywhere else.
First, let's look at how you can tell whether or not a product complies with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988. Underneath the sofa or chair you will find a label that should be fixed on permanently. It needs to contain specific information. It must look like the label above, either the full information version as shown or the 'shorter' version.
Be warned, however, that even if the correct label is present, the sofa may still not actually comply in its finished form - but at least this is a reasonable indication that it may be fire safe, or rather compliant with the Regulations (which is not necessarily the same thing, as you'll discover from the rest of this site!).
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Update, July 2019:
Before getting to the main Guide below, I'd like to make an important overall point about UK upholstered furniture.
On the 18 July 2019, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy finally responded to its 2016 consultation on updating the Furniture Regulations. Both the 2016 and 2014 consultations told us that the Regulations are not fit for purpose, mainly because the main ignition "match" test does not work in practice in up to 90% of cases. And if the ignition test doesn't work, then clearly the fillings test is totally ineffective also. BEIS has been sitting on this response for three years, mainly because it did not want to announce safety changes that should have taken place 5 years ago, and because it is in the grip of industry lobbying.
BEIS's hand was forced by the Environmental Audit Committee which published a report on 10 July 2019 that was highly critical of the goverment, both for keeping in place regulations that offer no fire safety and just poison us all, and for taking so long to respond to their own consultation.
The Response is a complete cop-out; as Mary Creagh Chair of the EAC said: after two consultations they have in effect decided to consult yet again.
The bottom line for furniture consumers is that for at least the next 5/6 years, you will be forced to buy upholstered furniture that is flammble when it isn't supposed to be and which contains the highest levels of toxic flame retardant chemicals in the world.
I strongly advise you to either buy abroad or from UK suppliers that do not put flame retardants in their furniture - see below for more details.
You might also think about writing to your MP to get on to BEIS to put the Regulations right immediately, on the basis that they are responsible for doing nothing other than poisoning you and your children in your own homes and producing the most toxic house fires in the world when they catch fire.
On to the guide!
Update, April 2020:
As noted on my blog, in February this year I had a meeting with the civil servant in charge of these regulations, Sarah Smith, where she was forced to admit that BEIS has no intention of changing these regulations for another 9-12 years.
Because of this I once again have to recommend that you DO NOT BUY FROM UK SUPPLIERS.
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Now let's look at the kinds of questions you might want to ask yourself. The first is:
Are you more concerned about the fire safety of your furniture or its flame retardant content?
I'm more concerned about fire safety
Before looking at this question in detail, it's worth asking yourself the question, why do some products have to be fire-resistant and not others? We're told, for example, that sofas and mattresses and prams must be able to resist fire. But why are there no flammability requirements for bedding? Most duvets, for example, will erupt in flames very soon after being exposed to flame, which rather raises the question of what is the point of mattresses being match resistant.
Since the Furniture Regulations came into force in 1988, smoke alarms have hugely increased both in numbers and effectiveness, while at the same time smoking at home has also massively declined. Why then do we still have such strict flammability requirements for sofas and mattresses? Well, you may find some answers to that question elsewhere on this site.
Regarding fire safety, in theory you should be able to buy any UK sofa or mattress secure in the knowledge that it will be the safest from fire of any in the world. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple.
The government has proved that the majority of sofa cover fabrics fail the strict 'match test' (see elsewhere on this site for details). This means they are flammable when they shouldn't be. If this concerns you buy either:
Leather-covered sofas, since leather passes the match test naturally (and without chemical treatment). You may, however, want to look into the kind of leather used: much of it these days is in effect leather dust glued together and all kinds of chemicals can be used in the process.
Sofas which contain a 'Schedule 3 interliner' (see labels above). This applies to cover fabrics which are mostly made from natural 'cellulosic' materials like cotton or wool. The good news is that because these materials are naturally fire-resistant, they do not need to be treated with flame retardant chemicals. Instead, a liner is placed between the cover and the filling which must pass another, similar, flammability test. Flame retardants are used in these interliners, however, and there is growing evidence that they can be toxic; also, interliners aren't always reliable. (And see update below.)
For reasons that nobody appears to know, the Furniture Regulations only apply to the fillings in mattresses, and there are no labelling requirements. Mattress cover fabrics need to comply with a British Standard called BS 7177, which does have a labelling requirement (see bottom of page).
Providing this label is authentic, the mattress should at least be resistant to match/small flames. By law, the fillings must also pass the required tests under the Furniture Regulations. However, sheer logic brings this claim into question, i.e. fire will obviously start in bedding on top of the mattress - duvets in particular can be incredibly flammable; therefore by the time flame reaches the mattress it is hugely greater than a match flame source and will completely overwhelm any benefit that the match test provides.
If you're concerned about fire safety, you need to be wary of anyone selling an 'organic' or 'natural' mattress, claiming their products are completely free of flame retardants. The truth is, it's extremely difficult for say cotton mattress covers to pass the match test without FRs, and it's all but impossible for 100% natural latex foam filling to pass the fillings test. Which means many such manufacturers cheat. They either use flame retardants and lie about it or they do not test their fillings to the correct test. It is of course very hard to find out which is the case!
If you're worried about fire safety, therefore, you may need to ask your organic/natural supplier to be more specific, especially where fillings are concerned. Ask them if their fillings comply with Schedule 1 or 2 (as appropriate) of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988.
Baby/child furniture, including prams, buggies, car seats
Children's mattresses must comply with the same flammability requirements as adult mattresses. Small items, like prams, buggies and car seats must also comply with the Furniture Regulations, i.e. pass the cigarette and match tests for the covers, and any fillings present must pass the fillings tests. Of course, this means they tend to contain flame retardants (see below).
I'm more concerned about flame retardant chemicals
It's very difficult to find sofas/mattresses/baby products in the UK that have not been treated with flame retardant chemicals. It doesn't help that the furniture industry is very conservative and has not exactly been breaking a sweat to find alternatives, even though they definitely exist.
You can look for 'organic' and/or 'natural' products but see above for problems with these.
As said above, leather sofas tend not to contain flame retardants in the covers, and it's in cover treatments that you find the most toxic variety - brominated flame retardants. Also, as we've seen, these wear off easily. The fillings in leather sofas almost always contain flame retardants.
Also as above, you can avoid some of the worst flame retardants by buying sofas with a Schedule 3 interliner. Be warned, though, that interliners still contain flame retardants - possibly not as bad as brominated FRs, but still potentially toxic.
Update! - There is always more to learn, hidden down the back of the furniture industry's sofa! I have recently been informed by a manufacturer not afraid to speak out that in truth many fabrics which are 75% or more cellulosic ('natural') - e.g. cotton, wool, flax, etc - are also backcoated with flame retardant chemicals. Yes, the option is for manufacturers to use instead a Schedule 3 interliner but the truth is that backcoating tends to be the cheaper option. For example, standard cheaper cotton fabric will require a strongly-coated interliner, the cost of which is quite a lot more than backcoating. Interliners have to be treated with flame retardants too, of course, and they're expensive to fit. High quality cotton can pass the match test without backcoating and therefore requires no Schedule 3 interliner; however, it costs hugely more than standard cotton. So, as usual, cost is the guide rather than the safety of consumers.
In other words, ask the retailer for more information about their 'natural' fabrics. If they claim their fabrics require no chemical treatment either by backcoating or via an interliner, then expect the product to be quite a bit more expensive. At a rough guide, the feel of naturally fire resistant cotton/wool, etc, is quite different to cheaper forms: thick, robust, luxurious.
See above regarding 'organic' and 'natural' mattresses. Providing you aren't too bothered about fire safety, you will probably avoid most (but not all) of the nastier flame retardants by buying this kind of mattress. They tend to be expensive, however, partly because they use better materials and partly because they aim for the higher end of the market and therefore are better made on the whole.
Baby/child furniture, including prams, buggies, car seats
Given that children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of flame retardants, here we'll look at an alternative way to purchase FR-free furniture products:
Buy abroad! (Also - see new section below on antique furniture.)
The Furniture Regulations apply only to suppliers based in the UK, i.e. they do not apply to UK consumers. This means you can buy from anyone not based in the UK - e.g. Germany or Sweden or the USA - providing they are prepared to ship to you direct or you go pick it up yourself. But be warned, you cannot later sell on your sofa/mattress, etc, because you then become a supplier.
Very few European manufacturers use flame retardants in sofas/mattresses/baby products. Germany and Sweden in particular are strongly opposed to FRs in products. If you're shopping outside the UK, therefore, check retailers' websites and/or contact the company to find out about their position on FRs.
Yes, you'll have to pay for delivery but that is not a huge problem where small items are concerned. And even with larger objects like sofas, the postage will be at least slightly off-set by the fact the lack of flame retardants will have reduced manufacturing costs. To get this in perspective, it costs around £60 to treat a typical UK sofa.
More to come!
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A lot of people have written to me recently, especially after reading this guide, to ask about buying furniture made before the implementation of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, e.g. because such products do not contain flame retardant chemicals.
The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 apply retrospectively. Any upholstered furniture made between 1950 and 1988 must comply with the FFRs. Clearly, however, it doesn't, since the regulations did not exist in those days to be complied with. This means that no one can legally sell furniture to someone else in the UK that was made in this period.
Why? Well, like so many of the FFRs' requirements, it isn't entirely clear. The reasoning that is sometimes given serves, naturally enough, to support the introduction of the regulations. It says that furniture made between 1950 and 1988 is highly flammable, particularly due to foam fillings. Furniture made after 1988 must pass the flammability tests, which means in effect that foam in new fillings must be 'combustion-modified'.
As can be seen elsewhere on this site, however, there are problems with this reasoning not least that it's been proved that a typical UK sofa treated with flame retardant chemicals is actually more dangerous than a typical EU untreated sofa (which in effect is the same as UK furniture before the regulations came into force). And the fire resistance of both is about the same.
Which means we have the strange situation whereby you can buy a dangerous sofa/mattress legally in the UK but cannot buy one that is less toxic and no less fire-safe.
You may be thinking, therefore, that it would be good to buy furniture made before 1988 because it's less toxic, i.e. while the kind of foam used in such furniture is toxic when it burns, it's far less so than with post-1988 foam. But as said it's illegal to sell it. Never mind, because in fact plenty of such furniture is sold – as a quick zoom around the internet will demonstrate.
How is this done? Well, I've heard some interesting 'explanations' offered by sellers; here are a few:
"The FFRs do not apply to second-hand furniture." (They do.)
"The FFRs do not apply to leather sofas made before 1988." (They do.)
"Sir, please tell me that this sofa is going to be used only in your office [nudge-nudge, wink-wink] and not in your home." (On the basis that the FFRs only apply to furniture in domestic properties.)
"Sir, you have to understand that you are not buying a sofa; you are buying a piece of art."(Presumably, therefore, you intend to hang it on your wall, rather than sit on it.)
What does not appear to have been thought about in 1988 is that over time, furniture made in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, would become desirable antiques, at least in some cases. Also, there has been a growing market in the UK for furniture from the same period made in places like Denmark.
What are the ramifications for me if I buy illegal furniture made in this period?
There are no immediate problems for you because the FFRs apply only to the supplier – the person selling you the piece – not to you. Legally, however, you cannot later sell the piece on, because that makes you a supplier. But see section below on enforcement.
The key is enforcement
Trading Standards enforce the FFRs. However, they have had their funding so severely slashed over the past few years that they rarely prosecute transgressions of the law and when they do have to pick cases carefully. They are probably unlikely to go after what is now largely a high-end market where a court may well assume that the seller and the buyer were fully aware of any risks involved. Trading Standards are also well aware that in 2014 the government proved the FFRs mostly do not work; therefore, there is a good chance that a defending solicitor for the seller would raise this point, arguing that his client's product is actually less dangerous than a compliant piece.
As always seems to be the case, the poor bear the brunt of bad legislation. The well-off can afford more expensive modern furniture without flame retardants, or antique furniture that is also flame retardant-free. The poor, however, suffer the double-whammy that cheaper materials tend to require more flame retardants and need replacing more often, therefore introducing regular new batches of poison into their homes. And should it catch light, of course, the resulting fire will be far more toxic.
NEW SECTION - RE-UPHOLSTERING
I thought a good way to cover this subject is via a request I received recently through this website, along with my answer.
"Hello, thank you for your very informative website. I'd really appreciate it if you could answer a question I have; we have inherited a sofa from the 1960s which is in a bad way and needs reconstructing – the foam needs redoing and the upholstery. But we don't want to go anywhere near materials with FRs [flame retardants] in them. If we took the sofa to be reupholstered in France (and brought it back to the UK), do they use less FRs there? And would that be a legal thing to do? Many thanks if you're able to advise."
Here is my answer:
This is a somewhat grey area - as much of the Furniture Regs are! This is what the Guide to the Furniture Regs says:
"The Regulations apply to the re-upholstery of furniture which was made after 1 January 1950. All filling material and cover fabric used in re-upholstering such furniture must meet the new levels of fire resistance.
"This means that any upholstery materials which the upholsterer supplies or adds to the furniture in the course of refurbishing it must pass the appropriate test(s). Where, for example, only re-covering is requested by the customer, the re-upholsterer is not obliged to replace any non-conforming filling material which the furniture may contain. However, in such circumstances we strongly advise that the re-upholsterer should draw the fire risk to the customer's attention. Any filling material which the re-upholsterer adds to the existing filling must, of course, meet the new requirements. In ordering upholstery materials the re- upholsterer should seek advice from his supplier about their suitability for use in furniture."
From this, anyone re-upholstering your sofa would need to replace the fillings and cover fabrics with materials which pass the requirements of the Regs. This could be done with natural materials like wool and cotton which can pass the requirements without the need for FRs but that would be very expensive on a bespoke basis (probably cheaper to buy a non-FR new sofa).
The grey area is, as you appear to have noticed, that the Regs apply to UK suppliers not consumers. So, if you did your own re-upholstery, you could use any materials you want because they do not have to comply. But a re-upholsterer is a supplier and needs to comply.
Your France idea would probably work. The Furniture Regs apply to suppliers in the UK, i.e. not outside of it. Therefore, the French re-upholsterer would need to comply with French requirements. I'm pretty sure that in effect this will be at most compliance with the EU cigarette test for covers which can be met without FRs. You could then bring the sofa back to the UK legally because you are not a supplier. You couldn't later sell it on but it sounds like you won't want to do that anyway.
The reality is that even if your re-upholsterer used non-compliant non-FR materials, it's extremely unlikely that Trading Standards would a) know about it or b) do anything about it if they did. TS's budgets have been so severely stripped in recent years that they can't afford to prosecute large scale villains, let alone individuals who are simply in effect producing furniture for themselves.
That last paragraph might seem like I'm advocating people re-upholster their sofas with materials that are flammable. To an extent this is true. However, as with the Regulations proper I believe that the risk of fire in upholstered furniture is lower than the risk of toxic poisoning from flame retardants – which do not work anyway in providing fire safety. Anyone who is taking the trouble to re-upholster old furniture, and pay for it, is likely to have the mind-set to sensibly deal with a product that could be flammable.
NEW SECTION - SCOTCHGARDING
Consumers are often pressured by retailers to pay extra to have sofas chemically treated with stain-repellents like Scotchgard. When these treatments are applied to fabrics, however, they can change the burning characteristics, and when silicone (common ingredient of such sprays) is used in the assembly process it can compromise the flammability of fillings. To quote BIS's own "technical annex" to their 2014 proposed safety changes to the Furniture Regulations (which have still not been put into effect):
"These elements include silicon sprays to ease assembly or create a water resistant finish, and spray adhesives which are used in a variety of places in order to hold foam together or prevent fibres from slipping. These additional elements can have a catastrophic effect on the flammability of materials to which they are applied. When these elements are applied they are often in close proximity to the cover."
Just for good measure, these treatments are also toxic, as the various warning signs on the cans will tell you. Which means that they add to the toxicity of the sofa in its normal day-to-day state and hugely add to the toxic fumes created if it burns.
The Guardsman Protection Plan is sold by many retailers. Under this plan, your sofa may be pre-sprayed with stain repellent (but see below on legality) or a more DIY approach may be required. If you go to this page on the Guardsman website there is a helpful video showing a confident-looking technician visiting your home to fix your sofa. But if you read the wording under it, you'll see that he will only turn up to fix physical damage; if you have a stain, Guardsman will send you a bottle of their stain remover (standing well back) and you have to apply it yourself. This is odd, e.g. it's difficult to imagine say a car insurance scheme under which, if your car suffered a scratch, they'd send you a can of spray paint and tell you to do it yourself. However, Guardsman technicians are protected by health and safety at work laws . . . could this be a factor?
Well, Guardsman also helpfully provide a link to the data sheet (required information about the potential hazards to health and the environment) for this spray (although it's not too easy to find), just in case you're worried, and I'd strongly recommend you take a close look at this. You might wonder why, in light of the many hazards described in it that Guardsman offer no advice on how to protect yourself when using their spray. Seems like their own technicians would rather avoid it, however.
You may also wonder if this practice of stain repellent treatment in general is legal. Well, if it's applied after fabrics have been tested then it isn't, although manufacturers pretend it is. A few years ago, we discovered this common practice of Scotchgarding; as a result the BFM (British Furniture Manufacturers' Association) issued a press release claiming that the Furniture Regulations only apply to 'virgin materials'. What they meant was that the fire tests required under the Regulations apply to separate cover fabrics and fillings before the sofa is constructed. After construction, you can add any kinds of adhesive and stain repellent sprays you like even if that means the product is no longer flame-resistant. Well, profit will always find a way. However, the Department for Business issued a statement from its lawyers to the BFM and the rest of the industry which was very clear: a sofa must comply with the regulations at the point of sale.
But guess what? They're still Scotchgarding sofas. Not only that but some retailers will try to persuade you to pay for extra years' insurance with the condition that you must have it treated with stain repellents first! Quite a parade of nice little earners in there; just a pity that the end result is more expensive to the consumer than it should be; that and it's far more toxic too.
Obviously, it's your choice whether to pay for Scotchgarding/stain repellents or not. But it's important to know that this could be an illegal activity; it adds considerably to the toxicity of the sofa and it could well make your sofa flammable again! It's up to you to decide if that's worth reducing stains from the odd glass of wine spill or not.
NEW SECTION - THE FURNITURE OMBUDSMAN
If something goes wrong with your furniture, you might find any complaint you make being directed towards the Furniture Ombudsman. But before deciding to use its services, you may want to consider the following.
First, you might be surprised to learn that anyone can set up as an ombudsman in the UK. Yes, some are established by Act of Parliament, e.g. the Financial Ombudsman. But this is not the case with the Furniture Ombudsman. In fact, it used to share the same parent company and address as FIRA, the Furniture Industry Research Association (after complaints of conflicts of interests, it has now moved – about 250 yards south of FIRA's headquarters in Stevenage).
What is FIRA? Apart from being a test house it is also the trade association for the furniture industry. And yes, what that means is that the Furniture Ombudsman is strongly linked to companies that pay to be part of FIRA, who pledge to reduce their costs in various ways, costs including dealing with customers' complaints.
In 2014, Radio 4's 'You and Yours' ran a piece on the Furniture Ombudsman, which you can listen to here:
In short, the complaints system meant that the consumer complained to the furniture supplier, i.e. M&S. A technician was sent out to check the furniture who, in the example given on the programme, was not from M&S as the customer believed, but from FIRA. M&S is a paying member of FIRA. When, as was almost certain, the technician found in favour of the company, you could then complain to the Furniture Ombudsman. Which at that time was part of FIRA. FIRA have since claimed they are now separate from the Furniture Ombudsman, and I suppose that's true, at least by 250 yards.
'You and Yours' reported that furniture was 4th on the list of most complained-about products. In 2013, there were 38,000 complaints about furniture. How many of these were resolved in the consumer's favour? Well, if you do the maths presented on the programme, it's just 43. Out of 38,000.
The Furniture Ombudsman's website today is rather confusing. It says of course that it's independent and claims it's free to the consumer. But if you click on the details, it turns out that it will cost you £125 to make a complaint. Considering the odds of success, that's probably not a wise investment.
It's fair to say that FIRA is not shy of this sort of thing. For example, they recently set up the 'Compliance Scheme for the Fire Performance of Upholstered Furniture'. This is for furniture companies who of course must pay for the privilege. What is it? Well, FIRA says:
"The scheme was developed by the Furniture Industry Research Association in response to a series of high profile media and enforcement investigations, which culminated in the BBC's 'Fake Britain' programme in January 2014."
What happened on this programme was that the production company nabbed various sofas and mattresses from big companies, had them tested to the requirements of the Furniture Regulations and claimed there were high failure rates. What FIRA doesn't mention, however, is that it was behind this programme, working as advisors along with Clarkson Textiles (the biggest furniture fabric chemical treatment company in the world) and the National Bed Federation. On the programme, FIRA's labs were used for the testing (even if much of it was not done correctly). It may surprise you to learn that the head of FIRA actually phoned me the day after the programme aired, to boast about all the additional testing work it was already getting from its own spooked members! For what may lie behind this apparently extraordinary situation, check the rest of this website.
Oh, and the flame retardant and chemical treatment industries also did rather nicely out of the panic that ensued in that they raised treatment prices because, they said, they needed to add 30% more flame retardants to the treatments, to ensure fabrics comply with the fire tests. I'll leave you to ponder the interesting questions that this action raises.
Here's the thing: all that FIRA's scheme actually does is in effect tell manufacturers that they must comply with the law. However, FIRA knows only too well that while the letter of the law can be complied with, furniture will still be flammable and unsafe (because the law does not work). Who provided the proof of this, as published on the Department for Business's website? You guessed it: FIRA.
Why would furniture companies sign up to a scheme that they know is essentially useless? Well, speculation suggests that FIRA is pretty good at scaremongering and the entire industry now knows the Furniture Regulations do not work. So a compliance scheme can be touted as possible protection. At a cost, of course. You might be wondering why FIRA doesn't instead put pressure on the government to change the regulations so that they are safe for the consumer. Well, snouts and troughs and all that.
Enough at least for you to question the 'independence' of the Furniture Ombudsman before parting with your cash.
JOHN LEWIS IS LYING TO YOU!
A colleague I'll call Bill phoned me recently about a trip he'd made to a John Lewis store just before the lock-down. In the mattress department he'd asked a salesman what flame retardant chemicals were in their mattresses. The salesman boldly stated, "All our mattresses are chemical free!" Bill, knowing quite a bit about mattresses challenged this and got the same response. But after a bit more pressing, the salesman made a convoluted but astonishing statement. He said that when they put the mattress components together, there are no flame retardants present; then they add chemicals in order to comply with the law. Leaving aside the fact that the law does not require the use of flame retardants in furniture, Bill said: "So your mattresses are full of flame retardants." "No," said the salesman; "all our mattresses are chemical-free." This cycle repeated for a while until Bill lost the will to live and left the store.
Before offering a theory on why John Lewis would lie about chemicals in their mattresses, let's consider the serious side of this for a moment. Say you had a serious thyroid condition, which could lead to thyroid cancer. You have read the literature and know that there is a strong link between some flame retardant chemicals and thyroid diseases. So you go to John Lewis because you believe they are a trusted company who pride themselves on excellent customer care. You ask the salesman about flame retardant chemicals and he reassures you that JL mattresses are entirely chemical-free. You buy one, take it home then you get thyroid cancer.
What might be behind this lying policy? Well, first, here are a few facts to consider:
John Lewis, along with the entire furniture industry, found out in 2014 that the furniture fire safety regulations do not work, meaning that they were (and are) selling upholstered furniture that is not only flammable when it shouldn't be but is full of toxic flame retardants that do nothing for fire safety, just poison us on a daily basis. John Lewis did nothing about this other than to bellyache that the new fire test the government was proposing – which would have worked – meant they would have to change some of they materials they use inside their furniture because they're so flammable (yes, really).
Industry managed to block changes to the regulations and in 2015 CHEM Trust wrote to John Lewis asking what they were doing about the fact they were knowingly selling flammable, toxic, furniture to their customers. They took 3 months to reply and then just said, "We comply with the law." That's okay, then.
Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee produced a report on toxic chemicals in everyday life which strongly recommended that the government change the furniture regulations to do what the rest of the world does with the result that there would be no need for flame retardants in our sofas and mattresses. The government responded but in effect just to say that it was going to start reviewing the regulations all over again, even though it had proved they don't work. You can read elsewhere on my blog how the government has now admitted that it won't be changing the regulations for at least another 9-12 years.
John Lewis is well aware of this. It could do something about it, e.g. make furniture without flame retardants (although that would increase the costs of production); fund the development of other non-toxic forms of fire resistance (which do exist); press the government to act on the EAC's advice; and at the very least warn its customers of the fire and toxic risks of its products.
The fact it has done none of these things puts it in the risky position of one day being caught red-handed, so to speak, if all of this comes out in public in a big way. Okay, industry has a pretty good control over government where these regulations are concerned but they can't know for certain that the EAC's findings won't eventually blow open the whole scandal.
What can you the consumer do about this? Well, challenge JL for a start. Ask them for proof they do not use flame retardants in their mattresses; point out that it's impossible for certain fabrics to pass the fire tests without chemical treatment; demand to know what chemicals exactly they're using. Specifically, ask them if they use organophosphates in children's mattresses. This was another of the EAC's recommendations, following their horror in discovering that the same chemicals that were banned from sheep dip because they're so toxic are used in our kids' mattresses: they urged the government to remove children's mattresses from the scope of the regulations immediately. But again the government says it will not do this for at least another 9-12 years.
An easier course of action of course is simply to not buy from John Lewis. Unfortunately, I suspect the rest of the furniture retailers are pulling the same trick. You could look for "organic" mattresses but please read the rest of this guide first. Organic manufacturers cheat too. Which brings me back to the advice I offer elsewhere in this guide: buy from outside the UK.
HOW TO SLEEP SAFELY - DON'T ASK SIR KEN!
In June 2011 the BBC broadcast a show in its "Kill it, Cut it, Lose it" series on wool. Below is a link to the section in which they demonstrated the natural fire-resistant qualities of wool:
Before looking at this video in some detail, I thought I'd save you the trouble of having to pick through the many misleading statements and omissions it makes and give you the actual takeaways from this video that are useful:
- Wool is naturally fire-resistant, therefore if you're worried about fire safety, it's a good product to buy.
- The UK's Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations are completely useless in preventing fires in pillows and mattresses.
- Man-made materials like polyester and polyurethane burn faster than wool and are much more toxic when they burn because the vast majority of UK bedding, mattresses and pillows are stuffed with flame retardant chemicals.
- If you're concerned about protecting your health and ensuring any fires in your bedroom are as least toxic as possible, look for mattresses and pillows that do not contain flame retardants; ditto for carpets and curtains and bedding (not an easy task - but see the rest of this guide).
- Sir Ken Knight cannot be trusted!
Why this video is misleading
In the first test, Sir Ken tells us that he's set up the materials of a typical bedroom set up. This involves a wool blanket, wool pillow and wool mattress (without it appears any sheets). This in fact is anything but typical: I doubt there are more than a handful of houses in the UK with this set-up. Most people now use duvets, for a start, which are highly flammable (and often packed with flame retardants). Wool pillows are very hard to find mainly because wool fillings cannot easily pass the requirements of the Furniture Regulations. UK-made wool mattresses are also hard to find and again cannot easily pass the requirements of the Regs without chemical treatment. All of which Sir Ken is very aware of, believe me.
It also looks as if this bed does not contain sheets. If not, I suspect this is a deliberate omission since sheets can catch fire quite easily and accelerate fire spread.
For the second test, it's not clear exactly what is meant by "polyester furnishings". But they probably mean the duvet and pillow are made mostly of polyester which is highly flammable for the most part. This set up is of course far more common than the first.
This set-up catches fire quite easily and soon Sir Ken is telling us "this is toxic smoke coming out of here!". But what he's not telling you is that because of the masses of flame retardants that will be present in the mattress, pillow and probably also in the duvet, this smoke is far more toxic than what was coming off the wool products.
What he's also not doing is pointing out the obvious: that the Furniture Regulations' requirements for mattresses and pillows are clearly useless in preventing fire spread. Here we see the entire room ablaze within 5/6 minutes. Which is odd when the flame retardant industry claims their products along with the Furniture Regs will give you 12-14 mins escape time. They, like Sir Ken, don't tell you that the fire will be much more toxic when flame retardants are present.
As the government's Chief Fire Safety Advisor, you'd expect Sir Ken to know all this. But in fact, just a few years later he went out of his way to make sure that changes to the Furniture Regs did not go ahead - including bullying me with a bunch of lies and threats - even though those changes would have made furniture fire safer and much less full of flame retardants. One might suspect that Sir Ken was actually working for the flame retardant industry but keeping it quiet. Either that or he's very stupid about fire safety.
Then Sir Ken is asked on the video if these tests say we should get rid of polyester in our homes. Now, I don't know about you, but at this point I'd be screaming, "Yes! Do it now! Replace it all with wool!" But Sir Ken says no (although omits to explain why exactly); he says you just need to think about buying safe products. Er, isn't that why you were just asked this question?
The BBC then wrongly states that furniture fire laws mean that mattresses and pillows must be (chemically) "treated". They don't: the Regs just provide fire resistance requirements that must be met. The flame retardant industry often falsely claims you must use their chemicals by law, for obvious reasons, and Sir Ken is well aware of that. So I wonder who advised the BBC wrongly? Hmmmm.
Bottom line message from this video: the Furniture Regs are useless, therefore either buy your mattresses and pillows from non-UK sources or find UK manufacturers who don't use flame retardants (easier said than done but see the rest of this guide).