What are Flame Retardants?

Flame retardants refer to a variety of substances that are added to combustible materials to prevent fires from starting or to slow the spread of fire and to provide additional escape time.

The term “flame retardant” refers to a function, not a family of chemicals. A variety of different chemistries, with different properties and molecular structures, act as flame retardants and these chemicals are often combined for effectiveness. Today, flame retardants are used in four major areas:

  • Electronics and Electronic Devices
  • Building and Construction Materials
  • Furnishings
  • Transportation

Why Are Flame Retardants Critical to Fire Safety

The value of Flame Retardants is recognized by many different manufacturing sectors that rely on added protection in their products, as well as a number of independent studies that also outline their benefits.

The use of flame retardants is especially important today, as the large volume of electrical and electronic equipment in today’s buildings, coupled with a larger volume of combustible materials, can increase the potential for fire hazards.

Flame Retardants are Regulated in the U.S. & Around the World

Like all chemicals, flame retardants currently in use and new fire-safety chemicals are tested by the manufacturers and are subject to rigorous review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and regulators around the globe. EPA has authority to limit or even prohibit a chemical’s use if the agency concludes that the chemical presents or will present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment. EPA recently indicated that approximately 50 flame retardants that it had reviewed were unlikely to pose a risk to human health.

Claims that Flame Retardants are responsible for the increased risk of firefighter cancers are not supported by scientific evidence.

Despite claims, independent research conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-Fire Fighter Cancer Cohort Study, and the Institute of Medicine show there is simply no clear association between chemicals in today’s products and increased health effects in firefighters.

In fact, research demonstrates that flame retardants may reduce the toxic profile of combustion by products. One study found that flame retardant foam and non-flame retardant foam showed similar results for smoke toxicity, and both were less than what would be produced by an equivalent mass of wood. In fact, the study found that there was no difference between the flame retarded foam and non-flame retarded foam when it came to the release of certain byproducts often associated with potential cancer in firefighters.

A second study evaluated if the use of flame retardants in U.S. flat panel television sets made a difference in fire ignition and spread versus flat panel televisions from Brazil or Mexico where flame retardants are used in a much more limited capacity. As part of the study, researchers determined, combustion gases from the Brazilian television (non-flame retardant) contained more carbon monoxide, acrolein, and benzene than the U.S. television (flame retarded).


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