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Panel: Rob Simon
Media: Bryan Goodman

Flame retardants are used in building materials and products to meet important fire safety standards and codes. Flame retardants stop or slow the spread of fire and provide critical escape time should a fire start, which is especially important for the most vulnerable populations. Learn more how flame retardants work. In research results released in May 2011, the National Fire Protection Association found the populations at highest risk for home fire-related deaths were children under the age of five and seniors over the age of 65.

Specifically, flame retardants are used to raise the threshold temperature at which a material ignites, reduce the rate at which materials burn, and minimize the spread of flames. Three major categories of building materials that require the fire-protective benefits of flame retardants include cables and electrical wires, insulation and structural elements.

Cables and Electrical Wiring

Today’s modern structures contain a large volume of electrical wires and cables to power EEE from phones and computers to heating systems and elevators. Electrical and communications equipment that feeds into various rooms of a building is usually bundled together and can run vertically from floor to floor behind the walls of a structure, potentially increasing the fire risks from short circuits and other electrical malfunctions. If one wire is the cause of a fire, for example, it potentially affects all of those in proximity. In addition, hidden cables and wires cannot be easily checked or maintained on a regular basis. To reduce the chances of electrical fires, builders use plastic insulation treated with flame retardants to coat wires and cables so a spark or flame does not spread along the “jacketing,” the protective covering for conductors and cables, usually made of plastic.

Structural Insulation

Most homeowners know the benefits of insulation and may even be familiar with its thermal resistant or R-value. In addition to maintaining comfortable temperatures, the use of insulation in homes, offices and public buildings is important because of the rising costs of energy and an emphasis on energy conservation and the environment.

Among the insulating materials available, polystyrene foam boards and rigid polyurethane foam panels are one accepted standard in the building and construction industry because they perform well and are cost-effective. While foam insulation and rigid panels allow builders to meet national and state energy efficiency requirements, they must also conform to fire safety standards, and often, flame retardants are used to help meet these requirements.

Polystyrene foam board insulation comes in large sheets of plastic foam that can be used to insulate most areas of a building, including in interior walls and over concrete walls to insulate basements, and ceilings and roofs. Polyurethane foam panels insulate walls and ceilings against sound and are used in public places such as nightclubs and theaters. Flame retardants in these applications help provide necessary fire-resistant characteristics, increasing the chances that individuals can evacuate a building and escape the deadly consequences of fire-related accidents.

Structural Elements

A variety of structural elements in homes, offices and public buildings consist of materials that, without protection, would be a fire hazard if they came in contact with an ignition source. Steel structures, metal sheets, wood, plaster and concrete used in building construction are coated with special paints and sealants that expand and form a thick insulating, nonflammable foam. Flame retardants are an important component in the formulation of these coatings.

How flame retardants are used in structural steel is a good example of the important role they can play in meeting important fire safety standards. At a certain temperature, steelwork can lose its ability to bear weight, and can buckle or collapse, with serious consequences to the structural integrity of a building. In the event of a fire, the flame retardant coating that is applied to the steel helps prevent this from happening by insulating the metal structure from the heat.

The wide variety of applications used in the building and construction industry, from electrical wires and cables to decorative fixtures, require the use of an equally wide variety of flame retardants. Learn more about the products that use flame retardants. Different classes of flame retardants, work to reduce the threat of fire hazards in different ways.  Flame retardants are not interchangeable and must be matched to the specific product and its performance specifications. Individual building and construction applications may have specific requirements that can only be met by a select class of flame retardant, or even a specific flame retardant within that class. Learn more about  how flame retardants work.

As new materials are developed, and building engineers and architects find creative ways to incorporate them into the design and construction of homes and public buildings, the issue of fire safety protection will remain at the forefront.  NAFRA members will continue to innovate and develop new and sustainable flame retardant solutions to meet evolving building and construction industry needs, which are trending toward greater energy efficiency and an improved environmental footprint.


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