The Facts About Flame Retardants:
Flame Retardants are a wide variety of chemicals which inhibit, suppress or delay the combustion of materials. They work by thermal shielding, providing a non-combustive barrier between the flame and combustible materials. Others are designed to chemically alter under combustion to release gases which interfere with the combustion process.
Modern Flame Retardants are specifically designed to suit individual fabrics as they have very different burning characteristics. Synthetics and Nylons require different flame retardants than natural fibers such as cotton. There are 5 classes of flame retardants based on their chemical makeup:
- Brominated: Interrupts the fire cycle in the gas phase to either prevent fire from happening or significantly slowing it down by releasing hydrogen bromide gas. Used primarily in electronics, building materials, plastics, foams and some textiles. Some of these chemicals are persistent organic pollutants and have been banned in many countries.
- Chlorinated: Similar to halogenated brominated flame retardants, they interrupt the fire cycle by preventing the release of flammable gasses which sustain the fire. Used in plastics and rubber.
- Phosphorus:Interrupts combustion by charring to form a thick layer of carbon which acts as barrier preventing the fire from accessing the combustible portion of the textiles, furniture, plastics, electronics and foam. These have mostly replaced the brominated flame retardants.
- Nitrogen:At high temperatures, nitrogen flame retardants release inert gas and form stable molecular compounds which prevent the further release of flammable gasses. Used in insulation, electronics and furniture foam.
- Inorganic: Compounds such as hydrated aluminum and magnesium oxides are used, often in conjunction with bromine or phosphorous flame retardants. They provide physical barrier and release inert gasses which interrupt the fire cycle and slow combustion. Used in plastics, paints, adhesives, rubber textile backing and wire.
Most household goods are manufacturer from petrochemical sources thus are naturally highly flammable, requiring the use of chemical flame retardants. In addition, natural fibers such as cotton are flammable. California began requiring flame retardants in furniture in 1975, with Technical Bulletin (TB-117) which became the de facto national standard. Flame retardants were added to a wide variety of consumer goods including furniture, plastics, nylons, electronics, appliances, toys and even kids pyjamas. One family of these chemicals, the halogenated polymeric brominated compounds (BFRs) have been linked to cancer, can be a neurotoxin and cause thyroid problems.
These chemicals continue to off gas into the environment as they are volatile, eventually being absorbed and bio-accumulate into the human body and into the environment. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) have been banned since 1976, many countries now also have banned polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s). Despite their banning, these chemicals are persistent in our environment as they have been incorporated into so many of the items we use in our daily lives. They are found in the Artic and in breast milk of mothers. North Americans live with the highest levels of these chemicals, recent study found that most couches contained flame retardant chemicals.
The good news is there is a completely different set of chemicals, mineral based, are used for textile flame retardant. These include salts, phosphors, sulfurs and other mineral based coatings. These flame retardants contain no Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s), PCB’s or PSDE’s and are not considered hazardous. They are approved for us in the US by the EPA and in Europe by REACH. The MSDS sheets list no toxicological or ecological impacts. The Health, Flammability, Reactivity ratings are all 0, and only slight hazards listed are related to prolonged skin exposure or eye contact which can cause irritation. Ingestion of large quantities may, however, cause gastrointestinal discomfort.
It is important to check the type of flame retardants used in the products we purchase. Chose non VOC flame retardant products. Buy only from reputable manufacturers who will disclose the chemicals used in their product’s manufacturing. If the label indicates California TB 117, the product most likely contains flame retardant.
In January 2015, TB-117-2013 came into effect. Effectively this revision lowered the flame testing standard on individual components, and focused more on the flammability of final assembled item. Products manufactured after January 1, 2015 will require a label which discloses if flame retardants were used. It is important to note that TB-117-2013 does not prevent manufacturers from using flame retardants, it simply makes it possible to manufacture furniture which passes the test without the use of flame retardant chemicals.
Overall we need to balance the public safety benefit of flame retardants in preventing fatalities from fires while being mindful of the toxicity of the chemicals we use in flame retardants. We should use them judiciously and chose non VOC, environmentally friendly options. The need to have household goods all flame retardant is debatable and not required by law. In the case of public buildings such as healthcare facilities, assembled occupancies and lobbies and exits, the fire code requires the use of flame retardants for all textiles. These spaces provide substantially greater risk of fire and catastrophic damage. In these cases, the use of flame retardants is not debateable, it is required by law. We simply chose non-VOC based chemicals which are not hazardous or toxic.