Fire is one of those things that has always fascinated me. In fact i became a trained fire breather when i was just 14 and was always mesmerised by its destructive beauty. This picture was taken of me breathing fire on the sand dunes of the Moroccan Sahara desert – (some years ago i might say!). Ive since retired as the occasional close shave (or hair on fire incident) wasn’t entirelyÂ conduciveÂ to being a better designer/ living longer.
However a question recently stumped me when I was giving a talk at Interiors 2012 at the NEC. I was asked if there was a fire risk with all these beautifully up-cycled armchairs that were seeing, and the recent uptake of vintage furniture. Modern furniture has to conform to fire safety regulations and most house clearance companies/charities won’t touch furniture unless it has a fire safe label.
The reality is that although many fire retardants (such as brominated fire retardants) contain known toxins, and even carcinogens. The current thinking is that itâ€™s more important to prevent fires than it is to reduce toxin levels in the home.
So, it’s a tricky dilemma, especially as fewer of us are smoking at home these days. Weâ€™re also more conscious of toxins in the air. So is there a better way to fire proof our vintage treasures?
Some of the issues we need to consider are: organic materials don’t catch fire as quickly as nylon; the presence of toxic fire retardants and toxins in our homes; and the use of non-toxic fire retardant for fabrics.
Flammability of furniture is a major issue, especially in the UK domestic market, where all upholstered furniture must meet the Furniture and Furnishing (Fire Safety) Regulations. Upholstered furniture for use in contract situations must also meet tight UK specifications, including BS 7176, NHS code and IMO SOLAS. SATRA has a large flammability testing facility, where full-scale tests are carried out on items of upholstery and bedding for both contract and domestic markets. SATRA also organises flammability seminars, which are designed to help you understand the complexity of the UK, EU and American regulations and associated test methods.
Labelling upholstered furniture and record keeping ensures that furniture in the UK retail supply chain can be checked for regulatory compliance. You can find out more about correct labelling at the SATRA website.
Of course, toxic chemicals in furniture and other consumer products is a major concern. Hexabromocyclodecane (HBCD or HBCDD) â€“ listed as ‘persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT)’ â€“ is a flame retardant used in the production of insulation panels, packaging products and the textile industry. For a more in-depth statement concerning the hazards of flame-retardants, this report by leading scientists in the field is an eye-opener.Â And this report by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants on alternative flame-retardants to the pentabromodipenyl ether (PDE) is also worth a look.
If you’re unsure about whether your vintage furniture is adequately fire proofed, you can always do it yourself. This Nitro spray is a ‘skin friendly product for use on all natural and most synthetic materials including clothing and seating’. It works by disrupting the burning process and quickly converting materials to carbon, creating a flame retardant carbon barrier. It’s easy to apply, non-toxic and non-hazardous.
This msl Firecheck water-based fire proofing is also non-toxic and can be used on any absorbent material, without the need for specialist equipment.
Of course, protecting fabric is one thing but how about if the material itself was fire resistant? Scientists from Texas A&M University have developed a new, non-toxic fire-resistant fabric that could revolutionise clothing and fabric technology. It is made from renewable ingredients like clay and chitosan (a compound found in shrimp and lobster shells). When heat is applied, a coating bubbles out, producing a protective layer of foam.
Â Half a century ago, asbestos – a ‘100% natural’ material by the way â€“ was hailed as the wonder fibre of the 20th century. It was principally used for its heat resistant properties and to protect property (and incidentally human lives) from the ravages of fire. And we all know what happened there. So we need to be careful about the fabrics and materials we use.
It takes between 10% and 100% of the total weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce certain fabrics. Making enough of these fabrics to cover one sofa uses 4 to 20 lbs of chemicals, and the final fabric is about 27% synthetic chemicals by weight. Thatâ€™s why I recommend trying to use organic materials that limit the use of residual chemicals and chemicals used in production.
So, as you can see, thereâ€™s a lot to think about when it comes to vintage furniture, fire safety and chemical use. Hopefully, you now know a little bit more about what to look for when buying new or upcycled or Â vintage Â furniture.