Smoke toxicity matters
Did you know that smoke is the biggest killer in a fire? According to the fire statistics for Great Britain 2011-2012: being overcome by gas, smoke or toxic fumes was partly or wholly the cause of death in over half (53%) of all fire fatalities.
Inhalation of smoke is the leading cause of fire fatalities, but also a major contributor to fire related injuries. Yet fire smoke toxicity is not considered in the European regulatory framework for buildings.
However, methods exist to measure the toxicity of smoke from burning construction materials, and an EU testing and classification system for smoke toxicity of construction products could be easily included in the Construction Products Regulation (CPR), which so far only addresses smoke opacity.
But isn’t all smoke toxic?
Yes! But whether it will be a hazard depends on how much of it is in the air that you breathe. Every combustion reaction produces smoke that is toxic and in sufficiently high concentrations may present hazardous conditions to exposed humans. Short-term hazards are impaired vision due to smoke obscuration and eye irritation, irritation of the upper and/or lower respiratory tracts and narcosis due to the inhalation of asphyxiant gases. These effects, often occurring simultaneously in a fire, contribute to loss of mental acuity and motor coordination, disorientation, panic and eventually physical incapacity.
Also, not all smoke is the same. Although all organic materials will produce smoke when they burn, the quantity and composition of smoke is dependent on material including additive type as well as ventilation conditions.
The type of material including additives used in the product needs to be considered, but in addition and more importantly design and end use application cannot be ignored. When it comes to fire safety, proper risk assessment must be undertaken on the final end use application in order to ensure people safety and minimise the risk of fire hazard.
In order to fill the gap between performance and safety, regulations, standards and/or guidelines need to also address properly smoke toxicity. It should also mean that smoke hazard would be part of the building classification.
What influences smoke production?
The amount of smoke produced in a fire depends on the materials burning, the temperature and most important the ventilation conditions (= the amount of oxygen available for the combustion process). It also is determined by design and end use application.
FSEU’s work on Smoke Toxicity
Fire Safe Europe (FSEU) co-hosted three roundtables in the European Parliament together with MEP Pavel Poc, MEP Christel Schaldemose and the MEPs Against Cancer (MAC) Intergroup in the European parliament. These roundtables invited firefighters and researchers to discuss the topic of smoke toxicity in depth, especially in relation to the impact on firefighters.
The first two Roundtable, held in 2015, led the European Commission to launch a study to assess the need to regulate on smoke toxicity.
The second Roundtable, organised in 2017, presented three significant studies on the impact of smoke toxicity on firefighters, and two firefighters explained how their work and health was impacted.
The European Commission Study
The European Commission DG GROWTH launched in 2017 the “Study to evaluate the need to regulate within the Framework of Regulation (EU) 305/2011 on the toxicity of smoke produced by construction products in fires” aimed at assessing whether there is a need to regulate on smoke toxicity from burning construction products.
Sadly, the final report of the study concluded that “clear definition of terminology is lacking” and “the type and format of data collected varies across Member States, and, at present, statistics on smoke toxicity are not collected and therefore the effectiveness of potential measures cannot be assessed.”
Whilst the issue of the lack of comparable data and common terminologies across the EU is a crucial issue, which is now being addressed by the European Commission via the Fire Information Exchange Platform (FIEP), FSEU believes that we must have a European system for testing and classifying of the toxicity of smoke from construction products in order to improve people’s fire safety in buildings. The biggest killer has to be addressed.
- Q&A on smoke toxicity
- Article by MEP Pavel Poc on the importance of fire safety
- FSEU press release on European Parliament roundtable
- FSEU CPR position paper
- CPR Interview by Juliette Albiac
- Working to improve fire safety in Europe. Croatian Firefighters at the European Parliament and Brussels fire station
- Article from the roundtable organised by FSEU and the European Cancer league (ECL)
- Article by MEP Pavel Poc on smoke toxicity
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