Smoke Toxicity

All smoke is toxic, regardless of its origin or composition. Smoke intoxication remains the primary cause for fire fatalities in Europe. Reducing exposure to smoke would help reduce fire fatalities. Although available data are insufficient to identify the most efficient measures to address smoke toxicity, it is very unlikely that regulating construction products alone would be an effective option.

 

Protecting people from smoke toxicity

Despite the progress made in fire safety across Europe in recent decades, fire fatalities still occur, primarily as a result[1] of smoke intoxication from carbon monoxide (CO) and other gases.

Smoke production depends on a variety of combination of factors, and the likeliness of intoxication and asphyxiation increases with the length of exposure.

Regardless of its origin and exact composition, all smoke is toxic and poses a serious threat to the health of building occupants and firefighters. As such, their protection should be the utmost priority.

Reducing exposure to any form of smoke will require better prevention or containment of fires and allows safe escape. Fire containment and safe escape is very often achieved via building design (through building regulations), for example, introducing compartmentation to prevent the spread of fire and smoke to other parts of the building and the provision of smoke-free escape ways during the period of escape from the building.

Fire prevention and suppression systems such as sprinklers, as well as early warning systems such as smoke alarms, are easily and readily implementable measures to limit the harmful effects of smoke inhalation.

 

Portrait of firefighter

Regardless of its origin and exact composition, all smoke is toxic and poses a serious threat to the health of building occupants and firefighters.

Relevant fire statistics still missing

The European Commission investigated the issue of smoke toxicity in 2017 with a wide-ranging study which recognise that all smoke is toxic (see 2nd conclusions of the study). It also concluded that a significant data gap remains.

Hardly any data is collected on smoke toxicity and no data is collected specifically for construction products. Furthermore, statistics collected in Europe tend to be incomplete and difficult to compare across countries; no Europe-wide statistics are available. As the study noted, fire casualties and sources can only be understood with common reliable data.

The collection of harmonised fire statistics at the EU level is needed to assess not only the causes of casualties, including smoke toxicity, but also the effectiveness of possible safety approaches, regulatory or otherwise.

The study further concluded that regulating construction products on this basis would be unproductive. As some experiments have shown, by the time construction products like insulation become involved in a fire, the smoke exposure from the burning contents of the building would already be non-survivable.

For such a regulatory approach to be effective, it would have to cover every item which contributes to a fire. This would include not only construction products, but also furniture, fittings, electronics, decorative items and more. This would be challenging, if not impossible in practice and a very long and costly process.

 

Installing a fire alarm

One of the most effective ways to reduce the effects of smoke inhalation is to limit exposure through early detection.

 

Beyond this, the most effective way to reduce the effects of smoke inhalation is to limit exposure through early detection and better fire prevention, as well as through information and training.

To best protect people, more accurate data and information are needed. Because of this, the Modern Building Alliance supports the work of the EU Fire Information Exchange Platform, a European initiative to harmonise fire statistics, alongside other objectives.

 

[1] 34% to 80% depending on available data