Futon Mattresses and Flame Retardants

Futon Mattresses and Flame Retardants

Current legislation regarding all sorts of products but including Futon Mattresses, Pyjamas and Flame Retardants (FR) became law in 1988 as a result of amongst other things, fires in commercial furniture warehouses and cigarettes causing  fire’s  in  domestic  situations  i.e. people’s homes.

Mirthglen Ltd. the parent company of futonsonline.co.uk began opening retail outlets in 1989 and was immediately confronted by the necessity of making sure the futon mattresses we were manufacturing had correct labelling and the fillings for futon mattresses were compliant with the legislation. It was a scary time as there was little to stop amateur operations trying their luck with chemicals they knew little about.

The fabric suppliers needed their material to be “back-coated” and the fillings suppliers experimented with ways to make the chemicals stick or bond to fibres. Opportunities for cowboys, rogues and villains were opening up and it took more than two years before the situation became easier and put on a more “normal” footing.

Absurd as it may sound the UK has FR laws that do not exist anywhere else in Europe and very few other places worldwide. California is an exception and is central to this story. The growth of cancer and ill health among fire fighters in San Francisco became an alarming issue and caused such concern that investigations were undertaken to find the reasons why they as a group were suffering so much. Flame Retardants exist on many household items but especially clothes and furniture and these everyday items were found to be at the heart of the issue.

Investigative journalists from the Chicago Tribune in the U.S. decided to help the S.F. firemen and with their help found that very little research was available, or toxicity reports within the chemical industry had ever been made to test that the chemicals being used on a wide scale were safe for use, therefore we the public at large don’t know if they work or not.


The facts are that since the 1970’s these chemicals have been in use and as a result have added to pollution in rivers and oceans when discarded from either domestic or commercial waste disposal systems. A scary thought is that many pollutants are described in terms of parts per million or billion but flame retardants are described as lbs. or grams per million. As the story developed it was found that FR chemicals were showing up in breast milk and where studies were made it found these toxic chemicals were easily absorbed and passed to the next generation.

Activists with concerns for the environment became involved and highlighted the debate about the countless thousands of untested chemicals on the one hand and the Chemical Industry on the other, who dug in to defend their position that was the use of Flame Retardants in an unregulated way. Anyone who has witnessed fire in any situation will know how quickly it develops and it’s seconds or at best a minute or so before toxic gases are given off from manmade substances such as foam. Adding FR’s to the mix enhances the toxicity of the fire and this is what firemen have to endure and what makes them ill and endure enormous suffering on our behalf..

The research surrounding 1988 legislation found cigarettes were a major cause of fires domestically and can be made to self extinguish but the tobacco industry didn’t want to do that and set about shifting responsibility to the furniture industry for domestic fires. The political power of the tobacco and chemical industry is such that it’s virtually impossible to make them change direction. In fact the vested interests set up the National Association of Fire Marshalls in the U.S. which sounds as though it would be there to help prevent fire related problems but the Chicago Tribune found it was a completely bogus organisation and funded by the chemical companies that manufactured flame retardant chemicals. One of the important points to see is how the debate was moved from igniting fires (cigarettes) to fuelling fires (furniture) low cunning at work undoubtedly.

The California State Legislature looked at passing Flame Retardant banning laws but the fact is the pressure brought to bear against enactment and the size of the market made these progressive laws a non starter. The debates made clear that baby products, furniture, nappies and sofas for instance use Polyurethane and it vaporises when burning and then dioxins are released into the atmosphere but these facts made no difference to the outcome of the proposed legislation, it failed. FR chemicals like PBDE’S accumulate and get in the food chain and then when flushed away into the sea for instance give rise to defects in Marine Mammals. Even when it was pointed out that Carcinogens stay in the body and women are x6 times more likely to suffer in 40/50 year age bracket when they have been exposed to these types of toxins it made little difference.

My own interest is with futon furniture and the Futon covers we use have to have FR’s on the back side of the fabric and given time this flakes off and so exposes users to potential hazards. Our mission in recent years is to find a way not ot use these toxic chemicals.

The chemical industry says FR work but the evidence is contrary, unless furniture has similar properties to those used by NASA on space rockets, they do not work. There are x3 companies that manufacture 3 billion lbs or 1.5 million tonnes annually for global consumption those are big toxic numbers. The irony is that tests show better results from untreated foam i.e. no FR is better than FR.

The chemical advocates cited a Swedish document called the Simonsen test, but it was not published or translated and NOT anything to do with FR, in fact it was a study about x8 TV’s, televisions, that had caught fire and so this evidence should not have been used with any side of the FR arguments and certainly had no benefit for consumers trying to make up their minds about an important matter.

Continued attempts were made to change the law regarding FR’s. New Haven, Maine legislator Hannah Pingree is a young woman who had lived all her life in a pristine environment and used herself as guinea pig, to test what toxins were present in her body, and was shocked to find FR’s in her system. Realising the significance of the evidence she had created by testing herself enabled her to become an advocate for change in the way Flame Retardants were used. However, like others before her she found the enormous forces the chemical Industry can bring to bear allied to the use of unlimited funds and resources to fear monger against any change to the status quo essentially means it’s virtually impossible to bring change usually until it’s too late. Only enormous damage to the environment or a catastrophic accident focus’s people’s minds and such events become catalysts for change, campaigners have had a poor return for their efforts with this debate. You would think that chemicals would be tested before use but this is not always the case.

Another pro FR campaigning group Citizens for Fire Safety infiltrated public groups and exploited and manipulated those groups and when investigations were made it was found that the only entities involved were the x3 companies that make FR’s. A phony organisation created to perpetuate the use of chemicals in our homes.

Battles have been won in the past few years with chlorinated and brominated chemicals coming under regulation. But the facts are clear, there’s no sound use for using chemicals on our furniture or clothes as it does virtually nothing or actually nothing to slow down a fire but it does add to the toxicity of those near or within the fire.

I mentioned earlier what I do and my supplier Mark Dowen says there’s absolutely NO NEED TO USE FR’S if you use the right fabrics and I’m in complete agreement with this policy. And although I’m at the end of this piece I have great news, in the first week of October we will offer for the first time in the UK a range of Natural Bed Mattresses that are completely Chemical Free, that includes the cover or casing of the mattress.

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