Flame-retardant chemicals may be toxic. What can we do to change this?
A Chicago Tribune series this past summer, “Playing with Fire,” shed new light on an old but hidden problem – the ubiquity of toxic chemicals embedded in many of the materials used in our indoor environment, halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) for one. Boiled down to the essentials, the issues call out for our attention:
- Flame-retardant chemicals are included in a wide range of materials and furnishings as the most expedient and least costly path to meeting the flammability standards. These sandards are written into law with the intent of reducing fire hazard by slowing the spread and intensity of fires. The state of California’s flammability standards for furniture are most often met by adding HFRs to foam; the International Code Council (and the local jurisdictions that adopt their standards into codes) leads to HFR use in foam insulation; and their use in electronics is a result of standards set by the International Electrotechnical Commission. These standards for furniture and insulation developed largely in response to the increased use of foam in the built environment, coinciding with an increase in fire incidents, primarily involving cigarettes. These standards were written reactively and without much planning or evaluation of appropriateness at the time they were implemented.
- In the case of foam insulation, the requirement that is met through the use of flame retardants is based on an inappropriately-applied flame test: The Steiner Tunnel Test is designed to study flame spread in tunnel conditions, not in a building’s interior. At a summit on flame retardants held the day prior to Greenbuild in San Francisco last month, fire scientist Dr. Vyto Babrauskas stated that the Steiner Tunnel Test “Might be an appropriate test if we lived in coal mines, with a low ceiling and a massive fan blowing heat through the space.” California’s furniture flammability standard, adopted in 1975 and known as Technical Bulletin 117, utilizes a small flame test. As a special 2011 report by Environmental Health News explains, “Naked foam treated with flame retardants to meet TB117 can resist a small open flame. But when fabric starts to burn, the foam will be exposed to a much larger flame than used in the TB117 test, and there’s no evidence that treated foam can resist that larger flame.” Since manufacturers who want to sell furniture in California must meet these standards, and since the state has such a significant economic influence, the state standard becomes the default standard for the rest of the country as well.
- The halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) currently in use have been shown to be persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic, entering our bodies readily through exposure to the dust from treated materials. These chemicals have also entered the environment through the waste stream, finding their way into the water supply and, as a result of bioaccumulation, they’ve been found in alarming levels in wildlife, even in our own food chain. The Green Science Policy Institute reports that these compounds “have been shown to cause reproductive, thyroid, endocrine, developmental, and neurological disorders including decreased fertility, birth defects, learning disorders, and hyperactivity in animal studies.” Our bodies have been demonstrated to be unwitting but effective participants in this cycle. Dr. Arlene Blum, a chemist who is executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, performed early research on this class of chemicals in children’s pajamas, where direct contact with children’s skin led to detectable levels of the compounds in their blood stream within hours of exposure. As a result of those studies, the HFR in question called Chlorinated Tris, was banned from children’s pajamas. Chlorinated Tris and other toxic HFRs are still in use in other applications, however. Eliminating these treatments from the built environment has proven to be daunting. A recent Green Science Policy Institute study of couches found that 41% of the samples collected contained Chlorinated Tris.
- Perhaps most concerning is that all of these risks are assumed, despite the ‘questionable’ value HFRs actually offer in the effort to prevent fires. This is especially true with insulation. According to “Flame Retardants in Building Insulation,” a paper published this year in the journal Building Research and Information, flame retardant chemicals used behind a thermal barrier, “do not provide a measurable fire-safety benefit.” Even in furniture, the Consumer Products Safety Commission has stated that the flame retardants required by TB 117 that they tested did not provide significant fire safety benefits. In fact, when HFRs are present in the case of a fire, they can cause greater production of smoke, soot, and toxic gases that actually increase fire hazard (Babrauskas, 1992).
Code change coalition: In light of all this evidence, a growing coalition of leaders from the scientific, design, construction, public health, and fire safety communities is convening around the idea of pushing code change towards our shared goals for human health – inside buildings, in the case of fire, and in our food and water.
I spoke recently with biologist Dr. Veena Singla, a linchpin in this Safer Insulation Solution Team from the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, CA, to make sure that I understood these issues. She was very helpful in clarifying the details of the issues I outline here. She also talked with me in some detail about the code change opportunity being seized right now. The first code change effort, pertaining to halogenated flame-retardants, this group is undertaking is limited to foam insulation used in residential construction, and is underway right now. The proposed code changes to the IRC call for allowing HFR-free foam-plastic insulation materials including “extruded and expanded polystyrene, polyisocyanurate, and spray polyurethane foam,” when protected by a thermal barrier; the thermal barrier itself providing more fire spread protection than treated foam provides. This approach is consistent with the standards in place in some European countries. This code change effort is pursuing changes only to the residential code (IRC), as that code is accepting proposed changes in the coming year. Individuals, companies, and organizations interested in signing on in support of this code change can learn more and sign on here.
At the moment, when building a home, one’s only alternative to HFR-laden foam insulations is to choose insulations other than plastic films. While there are some fairly good options, this choice currently forces a compromise in insulation value per inch of thickness, forcing either a thicker wall assembly or lower thermal performance. As for furniture, if you are not in California, you have more options available. In California, you can choose organic furniture, often at a significant cost premium, or avoid foam altogether. That California standard (TB 117) that leads to the use of HFRs is in the process of being revised. California’s Governor Jerry Brown announced in May that they would direct the state’s Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI) to revise TB 117 to maintain or improve fire safety while reducing or eliminating the use of toxic chemicals. The revised standard may be in place as soon as the summer of 2013, enabling the broad marketing of HFR-free furniture after that date. You can write to BEARHFTI to express your support for a revised standard, TB117-2012 that provides fire safety without harmful chemicals: email@example.com.
Most likely, there will be opposition to both of these code changes from American Chemistry Council, representing the three firms that manufacture these flame-retardants. Ultimately, the recognition that the status quo in our approach to fire safety is leading to health impacts should be recognized as an opportunity. Visionary companies will seize the opportunity to get out in front of this issue and provide safer solutions. Manufacturers who choose to do this will have an automatic market in the hundreds of construction projects pursuing the Living Building Challenge which asks projects to eliminate products that include HFRs, amongst other worst-in-class toxins on their Materials Red List. The opportunity inherent in the demand for such products was the source of inspiration for a competition we launched this fall, calling for innovative new materials that meet the demands of LBC projects, the Oregon BEST Red List Design Challenge. At this September’s annual Oregon BEST FEST Conference, we will be announcing the winners of the competition, celebrating the innovators who rose to the challenge. If you know of companies that could address the fire safety demands of projects through alternative means, please let them know that there’s something in it for them in the very near term.  Babrauskas, V., Lucas, D., Eisenberg, D., Singla, V., Dedeo, M., & Blum, A. (2012). Flame retardants in building insulation: a case for re-evaluating building codes. Building Research & Information, 40(6), 738–755. doi:10.1080/09613218.2012.744533, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09613218.2012.744533
Johanna Brickman is Sustainable Built Environment Program Manager at Oregon BEST, the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center. Additional links that might be of interest if you’d like to learn more. Scientific American blog about flame retardants in insulation is here. Scientific American blog about flame retardants in furniture is here.