Monthly Archives: April 2019

Lack of focus on toxic smoke from furniture


The toxicity of smoke is an important parameter when you are caught in a fire. Therefore, there are strict requirements for what the smoke from materials in trains and ships may contain. The same rules, however, do not apply to building materials or the largest source of smoke in our homes – our furniture.

As is well known, in the right quantities, everything is poisonous. And the quantities may be comparatively small when it comes to substances in smoke. If you are in a place where smoke is a crucial factor in case of fire, for example, a ship, plane or train, the toxicity of smoke is an important part of the materials’ fire-safety properties.

– The interest in toxicity in smoke grew after the fire on the Scandinavian Star ferry in 1990, where many of the ship’s passengers died due to toxic smoke, says Lina Ivar Andersen, Bachelor of Engineering and specialist in chemistry at DBI, the Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology.

The disaster prompted the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to prepare new rules in the area, and today there are also requirements for smoke in materials for planes and trains.

– Especially for trains that are to travel through tunnels, where the risk of being poisoned in a fire is even greater, there are strict requirements regarding the toxicity of smoke. The more difficult it is to escape from a fire, the more important the smoke’s toxicity is, says Lina Ivar Andersen.

When flame retardants are a problem
There is no limit to how many substances there are to test when you investigate the toxicity of smoke, but typically the substances that are most poisonous and have resulted in death are measured – this typically includes carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, nitrogen oxide, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen bromide, hydrofluoric acid and prussic acid. These substances are especially found in smoke from artificial substances, such as fibreglass or plastic materials, and may be fatal even in small doses.

– Therefore, it is a question of using sufficiently small amounts of these materials in a product. The flammable decorations on non-flammable steel walls on ships are, for example, very thin. Nearly all materials can cause problems with regard to the toxicity of smoke if there are too many of them, says Lina Ivar Andersen.

It can be a challenge when a product has to live up to toxicity requirements. Not least because other, good fire-safety properties may increase the toxicity of a product. Low heat development and fire spreading are also good properties, and they can be achieved by using flame retardants in the product.

– Flame retardants often work by making the product smoulder instead of burst into flame. On the other hand, this means that more smoke develops and the toxicity becomes higher than if it did actually burst into flames. Often, the use of more fire retardants results in more smoke and toxicity. These are useful tools, but their use is a difficult balance for manufacturers, says Lina Ivar Andersen.

No requirements for building materials
The toxicity of materials is not just a parameter for transport. And although its application to building materials is not on our doorstep, it is sometimes a topic that is discussed in European forums. Recently, the European Commission investigated the need for regulating the toxicity in smoke from building materials, which resulted in the publication of a report in the autumn of 2017. It showed, among other things, that it is probably not building materials that comprise the greatest risk for emitting poisonous smoke in our buildings and homes. On the contrary, it is the things we fill them with.

– The smoke from materials that we normally build with presumably contain a limited amount of toxicity. On the other hand, we fill our homes with furniture containing many foam materials, which give off much more toxic smoke, says Lina Ivar Andersen.

Compatibility of fire safety systems is important part of safety

Compatibility of fire safety systems is important part of safety

Fire prevention technology may significantly improve the fire safety of buildings. There are many great equipment configurations that communicate with each other. It is also important for the operation and maintenance of fire safety systems that the users and maintenance personnel are competent. Specialists in fire prevention technology remind us that the equipment needs to be compatible and that it requires regular maintenance to maintain safety.

The specialists in the field have set up a development group of fire prevention technology, which is concerned about the maintenance and servicing of safety systems which, as such, are in working order. Without regular checking of the operating condition, the desired operation of the equipment may be prevented.

Fire safety equipment includes, for example, fire detector and extinguishing systems. The purpose, after all, is that the various systems carry out safety measures each second and thus maintain and ensure operational continuity. This is not always the case since shortcuts are taken as early as the planning stage.

The most important matter at the planning stage is to identify the fire safety risks of the environment. Jarmo Alaoja, a member of the development group of fire prevention technology, has come across a number of equipment solutions.

– The selection and compatibility of the equipment must be based on the evaluation of the site and the suitability of the devices. This way fire prevention is not a part of its own, separated from other planning, but is easily embedded in the whole.
When a well-prepared whole is then passed on to a special designer who knows the land use and building acts, the end result is a step closer to its purpose, says Alaoja.

– With good planning and a skilled maintenance organisation, surprising and additional costs may be avoided. The problems in maintenance are often fundamental and in many ways affect the technical operational reliability due to lack of methodicalness, says Lauri Lehto, Security Specialist with the Finnish National Rescue Association.

Equipment maintenance requires skilled personnel

Implementing the equipment according to the requirements is just a start. Maintenance is estimated to cover approximately 80 percent of the costs of acquisition and maintenance of the equipment during its lifecycle. The equipment must be suitable for the usage environment during its entire lifecycle.

– It is in particular worthwhile to examine closely the compatibility and updatability of different equipment. In the worst case, the systems start to functionally “argue” with each other. An update on one safety system suddenly affects the operation of another equipment. That is why the proper operation needs to be ensured by necessary operation tests when system is updated. In such a case, the total management of the fire prevention technology is emphasised instead of individual solutions.

It is also possible that the significant changes are performed on the structures, purpose of use, or conditions of a property. The risk exists that the systems will not work properly in the changed operating environment. The system works as it should with the old criteria, but the operation no longer meets the requirements of the site. Problems may emerge in particular when different equipment are separate with no contact with each other. Different parties manage their own segments, but no one manages the whole.

– It is not meaningful or appropriate to limit the implementation or servicing of systems just to pass inspections. The important issue is proper maintenance based on the genuine know-how by the responsible persons and understanding the importance of fire safety, says Lehto.

What is the Fire Prevention Technology Development Group?

The Fire Prevention Technology Development Group is a group of experts whose shared goal is to advance safety and to develop the service and maintenance, qualityand technical prospects of fire prevention technology. The environment is constantly developing and fire prevention must stay up-to-date to meet the new challenges.

Lauri Lehto
Safety and Security Expert
The Finnish National Rescue Association SPEK