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Balancing fire safety with chemical-free furnishings

Most fatal fires occur in our homes, with furniture and furnishings first to ignite. Fire protection requirements are therefore a must. The question is, how high should these be set and how can the industry and regulatory authorities achieve the correct balance while at the same time seeking environmentally sustainable solutions?
“It is important to see all of the various needs,” says Karolina Storesund, senior fire research scientist at RISE.

A great many factors affect the flammability of a material. Today, we have a number of possible routes to achieving a good level of fire protection in our homes, with legislation and regulation being the most common over recent years. This does however involve a balancing act.

“If regulatory authorities place high demands for fireresistant products then, yes, the amounts of fire retardants may well increase, sometimes to levels that are bad for both health and the environment. Is it possible to identify and recommend an optimal level for these demands?” asks Karolina Storesund.

New knowledge on flame retardants needed

The United States has long had stringent fire-safety requirements for furniture and soft furnishings, something that has resulted in high levels of flame retardants. This has led to the current debate on how these levels can be reduced, and regulatory change is now underway. In Sweden, levels have not reached this significant level; however, new knowledge is required in order to keep up with developments.

The research project Fireproof Furnishings from a Circular and Sustainable Perspective is also studying alternative methods for increasing fire safety in furniture and soft furnishings. Environmentally friendly alternatives are being tested; for example, a textiles student is affiliated to the project in order to test fibre types utilising interwoven wool.

“We are also collaborating with the industry in order to obtain new materials for examination,” says Karolina Storesund.

Study the entire lifecycle of new flame retardants

Currently, there is a lack of incentive for furniture manufacturers to produce furniture with higher levels of fire safety. Furniture generally competes through price and design – any attempt to market a chair based on its superior fire safety is open to counterarguments regarding increased price and its impact on health and the environment. This is why there is a need for fireproof furniture manufactured in an environmentally friendly and circular manner.

Circularity in particular is a subject for investigation; as soon as one substance is banned, a new one replaces it. This makes it important to obtain new knowledge about the entire lifecycle of these new agents, so that we know that ‘environmentally friendly’ alternatives really deliver on their promise.

How design effects fire safety

The project will also involve setting fire to a number of armchairs to measure the effects of various solutions. It is not only the materials that are of interest but also the effect of the design.

“The most combustible component of our furniture is the upholstery. This is often comprised of highly flammable plastics that burn quickly and emit a great deal of black smoke,” explains Karolina Storesund.

Collaboration between industry, public authorities and fire researchers is a prerequisite for achieving good results.

“It is important to see all of the various needs,” concludes Karolina Storesund.