Flame retardants are materials that are incorporated into a variety of materials to reduce the risk of fire injuries and damage by providing increased resistance to ignition or by acting to slow down combustion and thereby delaying the spread of flames. As such, the term “flame retardant” describes the function or intended use, but this does not mean all flame retardants share common chemical or physical properties.
Many experts in fire safety engineering and material sciences recognize that the use of flame retardants is essential to stopping or slowing the spread of fire (source) The use of flame retardants is especially important today because many of the products and synthetic materials present in modern homes present a greater risk of fire dangers (source). According to the National Fire Protection Association, over a million fires occur each year in the United States which cause thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries (source). Flame retardants are one of the hidden layers of protection against the potentially devastating impact of fire. Their benefits are often noticed only when they are not present or not used appropriately.
Every chemical product, including those used as flame retardants, are subject to review and approval by regulatory authorities such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the European Chemical Agency and comparable governmental agencies in other regions of the world. As flame retardant manufacturers strive to innovate and make better performing and more sustainable products, these substances must gain approval from the relevant governing bodies. These authorities can limit or even prohibit a chemical’s use if it has questions concerning safety or other unacceptable risks. During a recent review of flame retardants on the US TSCA inventory, the EPA identified a handful for detailed assessment and approximately 50 flame retardants as unlikely to pose a risk to human health (EPA plans for FRs).
Chemtura’s flame retardants used in the flexible foam cushioning of furniture have previously undergone a comprehensive assessment by EPA scientists and regulators and were determined to be safe for use in furniture foam. As a result, families are safer in a home with a flame-retarded couch than one that is not.
Modern technologies have generated a host of new issues related to fire safety. The increased use of electrical and electronic equipment, for example, has led to a corresponding increase in potential ignition sources in the home. Manufacturers from a wide range of sectors have addressed these potential fire risks and, as a result, consumers have grown to expect modern-day products to be fire safe.
A range of industries – from electronics to construction to automotive – have addressed fire safety by developing technical standards for particular components or products where there is a potential fire danger. These technical standards are often developed through a consensus approach, to focus only on meeting a fire safety test. In some instances, product components must meet these fire safety tests as a prerequisite for sale in the marketplace. In this context, flame retardants have emerged as one of the most effective tools to allow manufacturers to meet flammability requirement standards. This has been demonstrated over and over as component parts in many sectors are subjected to fire safety tests which they are capable of meeting through the use of flame retardants.
Studies show that more stringent fire testing standards for products and/or component parts can have a direct impact on limiting fire incidences. For example, a study that compared fire data from the U.S. with that of the EU demonstrated that a more stringent fire standard for television enclosures in the U.S. resulted in fewer TV fires than in Europe.
The home furnishing industry also maintains tough fire safety standards. In fact, the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation asserted in 2000 that regulatory fire testing requirements for upholstered furniture are an important component in the decline of California furniture fires. In both of these instances, flame retardants are most often relied upon to meet these standards. The United Kingdom’s furniture flammability testing standard established in 1988, BS 5852, is considered by many to be the most stringent in the world. A statistical analysis reported by the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2009 concluded that both the number and lethality of furniture-related fires rose before the introduction of the regulations and fell afterwards.
A full presentation of fire safety standards for which flame retardants provide a solution is too extensive to present in a single article. Below are links to resources which provide additional information on fire safety standards that require flammability testing.
- Electrical and Electronics:
- Wire and Cable:
- Building and Construction:
- Furniture and Textiles:
- NAFRA: Fire Safety Requirements in Furnishings
- EFRA: Flame Retardants Used in Upholstered Furniture and Textile Applications
- NFPA 701: Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films
- NFPA 260: Standard Methods of Tests and Classification System for Cigarette Ignition Resistance of Components of Upholstered Furniture
- NFPA 261: Standard Method of Test for Determining Resistance of Mock-Up Upholstered Furniture Material Assemblies to Ignition by Smoldering Cigarettes
- NFPA 266: Standard Method of Test for Fire Characteristics of Upholstered Furniture Exposed to Flaming Ignition Source
- Oral Testimony at U.S. Senate Hearing (7/24/2012)
- Written Testimony at U.S. Senate Hearing (7/24/2012)
- Chemtura Response to Media Stories on Flame Retardants