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November 30, 2018

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Toxic gases emitted by burning external cladding pose serious health risk, study shows

Building regulations overlook the health hazards posed by toxic gases emitted by burning external cladding, smoke toxicity tests have suggested.

tall buildingThe Fire Protection Association (FPA) investigated the level of toxic fumes generated by cladding combinations that are compliant with current building regulations. It found a potential for serious harm to any human exposed in the case of fire.

The FPA hopes its report, launched today, will guide government thinking on the role toxicity plays in product approvals. The government is yet to reach a decision on the use of combustible materials in construction in response to recommendations made by Dame Judith Hackitt following her review of building regulations.

“Measuring smoke toxicity in building products is currently not a legal requirement,” said Dr Jim Glockling, the FPA’s technical director. “The results of our study show that current regulations may not adequately protect occupants from the potentially toxic fire gases from materials burning on the outside of buildings.

“Some current common cladding material combinations were shown to present less of a threat than others. There is certainly a need for further study.”

Rules that govern how a building’s walls must contain fire to facilitate safe evacuation are much stricter for internal walls than for external walls. Yet devices and features, such as bathroom or kitchen vents, can potentially transmit fire and smoke from the cladding system into the occupied space.

The study considered egress of toxic gases into a typical living room within a building covered in rain-screen-type cladding. Rain-screen cladding, which was fitted on Grenfell Tower, is a space formed between the insulation material and rear of the cladding panel that may contain other materials like vapour membranes (a sheet of material to keep out moisture).

For some compliant material combinations, once fire breaks into the cladding section containing a vent connected to an apartment, people are predicted to lose consciousness within 10 minutes and die within 30 minutes.

The FPA is offering the report to government and the Grenfell Inquiry to help it better assess the merits of specifying non-combustible materials in buildings and in strengthening regulations around fire and smoke ingress. It also expressed the hope that its work would prompt further research into whether fire toxicity evaluations should become integral to the building products approval process.

FPA MD Jonathan O’Neill said: “This work reinforces our view that a range of factors, such as measurement of toxic fumes, need to be considered when choosing building materials, in order to protect buildings and ultimately save lives.

“The Fire Protection Association wants assurance from government that systems are in place to regularly review building standards to ensure that the UK can never experience a tragedy on the scale we witnessed at Grenfell – on our or any future generations’ watch.”

Tests, which were undertaken over four months at the FPA’s laboratory in Blockley, Gloucestershire, involved several cladding and insulation combinations legally used on UK buildings using materials similar to those on Grenfell Tower.

Four tests were conducted to compare the smoke toxicity of various configurations.

The report was funded by the UK insurance industry through RISCAuthority. Toxicant analysis was provided by University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and material design detailing by Arup.

The FPA is holding a seminar considering the implications of Dame Hackitt’s recommendations for British standards and testing, product selection and legislative change plus the potential commercial impact on Monday 3 December in London, with places still available.

Read the full report.

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