A study of the Consumer Council showed very clearly that 20.000 to 25.000 people die in about 2,0 — 2,5 million fires in Europe per year. About 80% of these occur in private homes. Fire protection should be considerably strengthened in the domestic sector and easily ignitable products should be widely eliminated. However, no problematic flame retardants must be used! The Consumer Council participated in a European standardisation project on the subject of flammability of nightwear. Unfortunately the adopted requirements were much too weak and were rejected by consumer representatives.
According to a British study (Clothing flammability accidents study, DTI, 1994) there were at least 750 clothing flammability accidents in the UK each year (13,3 accidents per million population). An estimated 11 % of these accidents are fatal, 30 % involve severe burns. Children below 14 years of age and elderly persons above 60 years are particularly affected. Fatalities are almost entirely in the over 60 age group. Persons in both age groups have difficulties to put the flames out in case of an ignition. Nightwear is involved in 28 % of all cases.
Consumer Council studies
In 1998 the Consumer Council had a number of night dresses tested by the Austrian Textile Research Institute (ÖTI). For this purpose both, standardised tests for the measurement of flame spread as well as tests with dummies were carried out. The results recorded on video and broadcast by the Austrian Broadcasting Company ORF, bear witness to the fact that some dresses can burst into full flames within seconds.
However, there are also numerous night dresses where this is not the case. Concurrent with a Finnish study it could be proven that the ASTM test used in Nordic countries did not correlate with the dummy tests. On the contrary, such a correlation could be found when the European standard EN 1103, which in fact is a modified version of EN ISO 6941 employed in the tests at the Austrian Textile Research Institute was used. When doing the test a piece of fabric is attached to a vertical frame (see picture). Above it marker threads are mounted at various distances from the lower edge. The time is measured from the start of the application of the test flame (at the bottom) until the severance of the marker threads by the flames of the burning sample.
Problematic flame retardants
In addition, the Consumer Council initiated and supervised three studies concerning toxicological properties of flame retardants between 1996 and 1999. The first one was a preliminary study, the second one was concerned with health aspects (“Health aspects of flame retardants in textiles” - PDF-file 319KB) and the third one concerned environmental aspects (“Environmental aspects of flame retardants in textiles” - PDF-file 108KB). All three studies were carried out by the Department of Toxicology of the Austrian Research Centre. Concrete proposals have been prepared to assess possibilities for dealing with toxic properties in a normative manner.
The Commission charged CEN with the preparation of a feasibility study regarding the elaboration of standards containing requirements concerning the flammability of nightwear (the above mentioned standards do not contain requirements but only test methods). This feasibility study was completed in May 1999. The major conclusions:
it is considered feasible to prepare a specification concerning the flammability of nightwear
the test method should be based on EN 1103 in slightly modified form
a classification scheme should be incorporated in a separate standard
another specification for the assessment of flame retardants should be developed (the study of the Consumer Council was mentioned as a reference).
Mandate calls for high level of safety
On the basis of the feasibility study a mandate to prepare standards was adopted in 2000. Generally, it calls for a level of flame resistance of nightwear as high as possible. On top of it, even more demanding requirements are supposed to be established for nightwear intended for children and disabled persons. In addition, there are provisions regarding the acceptable flame retardants. Among other things only those substances are permitted which have been evaluated by the committee of toxicologists of the EU (CSTEE) and found to give no cause for concern.
Standard offers little protection
The Consumer Council participated in the work which started in autumn 2001. All expectations were heavily disappointed. After long and passionate discussions the draft standard (prEN 1478) was published in January 2004. It contained satisfactory requirements for children’s’ nightwear which were even more stringent than the British regulations.
However, there was hardly any relevant protection for adults. For such nightwear it was stipulated that the 3rd marker thread (at a height of 52 cm) must not be severed in less than 10 s. For comparison: the British regulations for children’s’ nightwear provide for 40 s. In the previously mentioned tests commissioned by the Consumer Council values of about 10 s were measured for the fastest burning nightdresses. This means first, that there are only few products which do not conform to these modest requirements and, second, that nothing changes to the better for the mainly affected elderly. Fatal accidents of exactly this group were actually the starting point for the mandate!
It came even much worse: after the enquiry the requirements were even massively lowered. Whilst in the draft standard for children’s nightwear except pyjamas requirements were foreseen which corresponded roughly to the acceptable British regulations (3rd marker thread not severed), the new provisions hardly provide for any protection (15 s to the third marker thread). It is even worse for children’s pyjamas. The original 40 s to the third marker thread were replaced by 10 s. This means virtually no protection. It is getting completely ridiculous as far as nightwear for adults is concerned. The anyway insufficient 10 s to the 3rd marker thread were deleted at all. After the failed first formal vote the scope of the standard was reduced to children’s nightwear.
It needs to be also mentioned that the requirements concerning flame retardants were likewise not satisfactory. There was only a provision saying that the manufacturer must ensure that the agents employed must have been assessed and considered safe by a European scientific committee (SCHER). Also this is entirely unacceptable as there is neither a list of approved substances nor an envisaged procedure for its developement. From the consumer side it was suggested to approve only 2 substances which are considered to be sufficiently evaluated: proban and pyrovatex. These were considered by a group of toxicologists as even suitable for being used in toys.
This standards project has not delivered acceptable results from a consumer protection perspective. The standard did not get a sufficient majority in the first formal vote. However, it was finally published in May 2007. Yet, the reference to this standard was not published in the Official Journal. A solution for this very unsatisfactory status quo is not in sight. The situation is quite the same for other highly flammable products (upholstered furniture, home textiles) which represent a similar threat to consumers.