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.
Flame Retardants are designed to slow the spread of fire to allow time for the public to escape to safety and buy time for the fire department to suppress the fire. Fire retardant coatings form an important part of a building’s fire safety system.
The flame retardants ecosystem comprises processing of bromine, chlorine, phosphorous, aluminum, antimony, and others (zinc, nitrogen, and melamine), the basic raw materials used for flame retardant production. The manufacturers of flame retardants procure the processed raw materials in different physical forms.
The most commonly used flame retardants in fabrics are:
- Halogenated flame retardants: These are chemicals such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), and chlorinated flame retardants.
- Phosphorus-based flame retardants: These are chemicals such as ammonium polyphosphate, melamine polyphosphate, and aluminum hydroxide.
- Inorganic flame retardants: These are minerals such as boron compounds and antimony oxide.
- Intumescent flame retardants: These are liquid-applied coatings that expand and create a protective barrier when exposed to heat.
It is important to note that some halogenated flame retardants, such as PBDEs, have been banned in certain applications due to their potential for environmental and health impacts. The choice of flame retardant will depend on factors such as cost, effectiveness, and regulatory requirements.
Typically, mineral based chemicals, 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 SDS 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. Only VOC free and non-toxic flame retardants should be used.
The use of flame retardants plays an important role in fire safety. Many household goods are made from natural or petrochemical flammable. California Technical Bulletin TB-117 – 1975 – Defacto National Standard of flame retardants in furniture. Retardants were added to a wide variety of consumer goods: furniture, plastics, nylons, electronics, appliances, toys and even kids pyjamas.
In January 2015, TB-117-2013 came into effect. Revision which lowered the flame testing standard on individual components and focused on the flammability of final assembled item. Products manufactured after January 1, 2015 require a label disclosing flame retardants used, if any. IMPORTANT - TB-117-2013 does not prevent manufacturers from using flame retardants BUT makes it possible to manufacture without flame retardant chemicals.
Flame Retardant Chemicals should have the following characteristics:
- High effectiveness: The flame retardant should effectively prevent or suppress the spread of fire.
- Non-toxicity: It should be safe for human skin contact and not release toxic fumes when exposed to heat.
- Durability: The flame retardant should maintain its effectiveness over time, even after repeated washing or exposure to sunlight.
- Environmentally friendly: It should not have negative impact on the environment.
- Cost-effective: The flame retardant should be affordable and economically viable for widespread use.
- Easy to apply: The application process for the flame retardant should be straightforward and efficient.
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.