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Exclusive: EU dismisses smoke regulation, looks into tougher fire safety tests

By Julia Fioretti and Barbara Lewis
FILE PHOTO: An official works in the burnt out remains of the Grenfell apartment tower in North Kensington, London, Britain September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville /File Photo

By Julia Fioretti and Barbara Lewis

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - There is no need for Europe-wide rules on toxic smoke from building materials, according to a report expected to be signed off by the EU executive over the coming weeks, disappointing campaigners who say regulation is urgently needed following London's deadly Grenfell Tower fire.

The European Commission is, however, considering EU-wide fire safety testing for building facades and will conclude a study early next year, according to EU sources, who asked not to be named.

Debate on fire safety has intensified since the Grenfell Tower apartment block fire that killed about 80 people in June. An investigation into the fire is underway and it remains unclear what role, if any, smoke played in the tragedy.

More generally, firefighters say one of their biggest concerns is smoke because of research linking it to cancer. They also say synthetic materials produce more deadly smoke than natural products.

"The responses received do not agree that regulation of toxicity of smoke from construction products is required," extracts from the final report seen by Reuters showed.

It found there was not sufficient evidence that member states want EU-wide smoke regulation and cited concerns it could add to building costs.

"There is general agreement that regulation of toxicity of smoke of construction products could increase product costs and potentially remove some products from the market," is another conclusion. It does not name them.

Two sources, who asked not to be named, said the Commission expected to review, finalize and publish the report after the end of this month, but a publication date had yet to be confirmed.

CAMPAIGNERS VERSUS PLASTICS INDUSTRY

The Commission had asked for the report to help resolve an argument between fire safety campaigners and the plastics industry.

Trade body Plastics Europe, which represents companies such as ExxonMobil, Total and BASF, says there is no evidence that rules on smoke would save lives and there are multiple factors to consider when assessing a building's safety.

"Toxicity criterion for construction products will not per se guarantee more safety in the eventuality of a fire," Plastics Europe said in a position paper. The European Commission declined to comment.

Firefighters and other safety campaigners say labeling products according to their toxicity when burned would address a lack of clear fire safety regulations for builders.

"Had the construction products regulation incorporated fire toxicity into the product labeling, it would have been very clear to the architects and designers that they were putting the occupants of Grenfell in danger," said Richard Hull, a professor of fire science at the University of Central Lancashire in England.

For now, the EU only sets standards to ensure construction materials can be shipped across borders within the bloc, although EU sources said the Commission decided long before the Grenfell fire to draw up the planned rules to harmonise fire-safety tests for building facades.

In addition, the Grenfell Tower fire led the Commission to set up a Fire Information Exchange Platform to share safety information among member states. It met in Brussels for the first time on Oct. 16.

Sian Hughes, chair of Fire Safe Europe, said harmonized testing for facades would be a step forward but for high-rise buildings it was impossible for any test to accurately predict a real-life fire.

"We must design the risk out of these buildings and that means only permitting non-combustible materials in these buildings from the start," she said.

Fire Safe Europe brings together fire fighters, representatives of the concrete and cable industries, and equipment and insulation companies including Danish-listed Rockwool and Germany's Knauf Insulation.

It says around 40 percent of deaths in fires are caused directly by smoke, while a further 20 percent are caused by a combination of severe burns and smoke.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)