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FR Q&A

FR Q and A 


Q: What are flame retardants?

A: Flame retardants are a key component in reducing the devastating impact of fires on people, property and the environment. They are added to or treat potentially flammable materials, including textiles and plastics. The term “flame retardant” refers to a function, not a family of chemicals. A variety of different chemicals, with different properties and structures, act as flame retardants and these chemicals are often combined for effectiveness.

Q: What are the most common elements in flame retardants?

A: Bromine, phosphorus, nitrogen and chlorine are commonly used in flame retardants. Inorganic compounds are also used in flame retardants, either alone or as part of a flame retardant system in conjunction with bromine, phosphorus or nitrogen. It is important to note that flame retardants are not readily interchangeable. Their areas of application are often specific and substitution can be difficult.

Q: How do flame retardants work?

A: Flame retardants are added to different materials or applied as a treatment to materials (e.g., textiles, plastics) to prevent fires from starting, limit the spread of fire and minimize fire damage. Some flame retardants work effectively on their own; others act as “synergists” to increase the fire protective benefits of other flame retardants. A variety of flame retardants is necessary because materials that need to be made fire-resistant are very different in their physical nature and chemical composition, so they behave differently during combustion. The elements in flame retardants also react differently with fire. As a result, flame retardants have to be matched appropriately to each type of material. Flame retardants work to stop or delay fire, but, depending on their chemical makeup, they interact at different stages of the fire cycle. To better understand how flame retardants work, it’s helpful to understand the fire cycle:

Initial ignition source can be any energy source (e.g., heat, incandescent material, a small flame).

Ignition source causes the material to burn and decompose (pyrolysis), releasing flammable gases.

If solid materials do not break down into gases, they remain in a condensed phase. During this phase, they will slowly smolder and, often, self-extinguish, especially if they “char,” meaning the material creates a carbonated barrier between the flame and the underlying material.

In the gas phase, flammable gases released from the material are mixed with oxygen from the air. In the combustion zone, or the burning phase, fuel, oxygen and free radicals combine to create chemical reactions that cause visible flames to appear. The fire then becomes self-sustaining because, as it continues to burn the material, more flammable gases are released, feeding the combustion process.

 When flame retardants are present in the material, they can act in three key ways to stop the burning process. They may work to:

 

  • Disrupt the combustion stage of a fire cycle, including avoiding or delaying “flashover,” or the burst of flames that engulfs a room and makes it much more difficult to escape.
  • Limit the process of decomposition by physically insulating the available fuel sources from the material source with a fire-resisting “char” layer.
  • Dilute the flammable gases and oxygen concentrations in the flame formation zone by emitting water, nitrogen or other inert gases. 

Q: What types of products use flame retardants?

A: While an ever-evolving list of new products—from hair dryers and small appliances to laptops and flat-screen televisions—is incorporated into our homes, offices and commercial environments, we seldom think about how the products are made. Flame retardants provide consumers with a critical layer of fire protection and are vital to reducing the risks associated with fire.

Today, flame retardants are used predominantly in four major areas:

Electronics and Electrical Devices

  • Television and other electronic device casings
  • Computers and laptops, including monitors, keyboards and portable digital devices
  • Telephones and cell phones
  • Refrigerators
  • Washers and dryers
  • Vacuum cleaners
  • Electronic circuit boards
  • Electrical and optical wires and cables
  • Small household appliances
  • Battery chargers

 

Building and Construction Materials

  • Electrical wires and cables, including those behind walls
  • Insulation materials (e.g., polystyrene and polyurethane insulation foams)
  • Paints and coatings which are applied to a variety of building materials, including steel structures, metal sheets, wood, plaster and concrete
  • Structural and decorative wood products
  • Roofing components
  • Composite panels
  • Decorative fixtures

Furnishings

  • Natural and synthetic filling materials and textile fibers
  • Foam upholstery
  • Foam mattresses
  • Curtains and fabric blinds
  • Carpets

Transportation (Airplanes, Trains, Automobiles)

  • Overhead compartments
  • Seat covers and fillings
  • Seats, headrests and armrests
  • Roof liners
  • Textile carpets
  • Curtains
  • Sidewall and ceiling panels
  • Internal structures, including dashboards and instrument panels
  • Insulation panels
  • Electrical and electronic cable coverings
  • Electrical and electronic equipment
  • Battery cases and trays
  • Car bumpers
  • Stereo components
  • GPS and other computer systems

Q: Why are flame retardants important to use?

A: Experts recognize the use of flame retardants is essential to stopping or slowing the spread of fire. Flame retardants are used to prevent ignition by increasing the threshold required to start a fire; reduce the spread of fire; and delay flashover, the “fireball” that can quickly occur when the combined heat and the release of flammable gases cause automatic combustion. Delaying flashover reduces the rate and intensity of burning and increases the amount of time people have to escape.

The use of flame retardants is especially important today because modern homes, with the increase in electronic products alone, present a greater risk of fire dangers. In addition, flame retardant use is a component in protecting the public, particularly more vulnerable populations, including the elderly, children in schools and those in hospitals. According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2009, 1,348,500 fires were reported in the United States, causing 3,010 civilian deaths, 17,050 civilian injuries and $12.5 billion in property damage. Flame retardants are the hidden protection against the potentially devastating impact of fire in so many products that we take for granted. Their benefits are often noticed only when they are not present.

Q: Are all flame retardants the same?

A: Flame retardants are not all the same, and they are not interchangeable when it comes to the fire safety of materials and products. A variety of flame retardants is necessary because the elements in flame retardants react differently with fire. In addition, materials that need to be made fire-resistant are very different in their physical nature and chemical composition, and they behave differently during combustion. As a result, chemical manufacturers have developed different flame-retardant chemistries to suit different products to render them fire-resistant and allow them to retain their intended functionality and performance standards. Further innovation by the chemical manufacturing industry will be required to keep pace with advancements in technology, and, with it, a steady increase in new products. Read more about the common classes of flame retardants.

Q: What are the protective benefits of flame retardants?

A: Flame retardants play a unique role in fire prevention and fire safety. They not only prevent fires from starting, but if a fire does occur, they slow down the spread of the fire and improve the opportunity for safe escape. Their role in delaying flashover, for example, is especially critical to escaping the deadly consequences of fire. Flashover occurs when every flammable object in a room bursts into flames at the same time as a result of a combination of intense heat and the release of flammable gases. This can occur in just a few minutes, and flame retardants’ function in slowing this process down can be the difference between life and death.

The benefits of flame retardants are well documented in studies and in real life examples.

The August 2005 fiery crash of a passenger jet in Toronto, Canada, in which all 309 people aboard survived, is one example. On August 5, 2005, the Washington Post reported, “The fire-retardant material now required in aircraft cabins may have helped slow the spread of flames and smoke, enabling all crew members and passengers to escape.” The plane was subject to “new regulations requiring fire-retardant treatment of seat cushions, carpet and other materials…”

In September 2009, at a conference on flame retardants and firefighter health, the Materials Flammability Group of the National Institute of Standards and Technology presented the following findings: flame retardant products studied provide a 15 times greater escape time compared to non-flame retardant treated products, and flame retardant treated products had a three-to-four times lower heat release rate and lower quantity of toxic gases released relative to the non-flame retardant product tests.

A December 2009 report, commissioned in the U.K. by the Consumer and Competition Policy Directorate of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), examined the effectiveness of that nation’s flammability standards for furniture and furnishings (F&F). F&F products sold in the U.K. must meet three specific tests: cigarette ignition, match ignition, and ignitability of flaming sources. The ability of these products to meet flammability standards typically requires the use of flame retardants. An analysis of recent fire data offered a strong endorsement of the regulations and the use of flame retardants they require. The report found: “Both the number and lethality of F&F fires rose before the introduction of the regulations and fell afterwards.” According to BIS, “the reduction in the rate and lethality of F&F fires was estimated to equate to 54 lives saved per year, 780 fewer casualties per year and 1065 fewer fires per year in the period 2003-2007.”

Q: Fire danger in the United States does not seem to be the threat it once was. Statistics show that the number of fires in the United States is decreasing. So why are flame retardants still necessary?

A: According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the number of reported fires in the United States decreased by seven percent from 2008 to 2009. In addition, between 1977 and 2009, civilian fire deaths declined from 7,395 to 3,010 respectively. Flame retardants have played a key role in reducing the incidence of fire. Unfortunately, despite the perceptions of some that fires are no longer a cause for concern, fire dangers continue to exist.

The NFPA reported that in 2009:

  • 1,348,500 fires were reported in the United States
  • These fires caused 3,010 civilian deaths and 17,050 civilian injuries.
  • All fires caused $12.5 billion in property damage.
  • A fire department responded to a fire every 23 seconds.
  • One civilian fire injury was reported every 31 minutes.
  • One civilian fire death occurred every two hours and 55 minutes.

Flame retardants have proven to work and continue to be an important component in the overall effort to address the dangerous consequences of fire, prevent fire-related injuries and protect lives. The use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture is a clear example of how flame retardants can be effective in protecting lives and preventing injuries. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fires originating in upholstered furniture account for more than 20 percent of all fire-related deaths in residential structures. Currently, California is the only state with fire safety regulations for upholstered furniture.

Additional factors that point to the continued need for flame retardants include the lifestyle changes Americans have experienced over the last several decades and ever-growing consumer demands for more electronic products. Through the development and application of technologically advanced materials, manufacturers, especially those in the computer and electronics industries, are responding to consumers with more efficient, smaller, yet more powerful devices. But many of the new materials now used in products in homes and offices are more flammable than their earlier counterparts.  With modern homes carrying significantly higher fuel loads than in the past, fire in today’s homes can be more severe than ever.  For this reason, numerous bodies including NFPA, the International Code Council and many states and cities require buildings and materials to meet specific fire retardant standards.

Q: In the past, a major cause of fire was a result of people smoking in bed. Since so many people no longer smoke cigarettes, doesn’t that reduce the need for flame retardants?

A: Despite intended advancements to make cigarettes “fire safe,” cigarettes are still a leading cause of home fire deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Cooking fires are the leading cause of home structure fires and home fire injuries.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 85 percent of all United States fire deaths in 2009 occurred in homes. Other major causes of home-structure fires cited by the NFPA include heating equipment (e.g., portable and fixed space heaters, central heating units, water heaters), which ranked second, and electrical distribution and lighting equipment, which ranked fourth. Fires started intentionally ranked third. Regardless of the original source of ignition, the presence of flame retardants plays a unique role in helping to prevent the fire from starting and delaying or avoiding flashover, increasing chances for escape. In addition, the protective benefits of flame retardants are critical for at-risk populations. In research released in May 2011, The NFPA found the populations at highest risk for home fire-related deaths were children under the age of five and over the age of 65.

 
Q: Are flame retardants regulated in the United States?

A: All chemicals manufactured in the United States or imported into the United States are subject to a regimen of oversight, testing and approval under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a United States law that regulates already existing and the introduction of new chemicals. TSCA is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which works to protect the public and environment by ensuring chemicals are manufactured, imported and used safely. Since the chemical industry is engaged in global commerce, new products also must meet rigorous foreign standards.

Regarding new chemicals, under TSCA, companies are required to file a pre-manufacturing notification (PMN) for EPA’s review. A PMN includes information such as specific chemical identity, use, anticipated production volume, exposure and release information, and existing available test data. EPA’s New Chemicals Program identifies and analyzes new chemicals that are of the greatest concern and manages their potential risk to human health and the environment. According to EPA, the program “functions as a ‘gatekeeper’ that can identify conditions, up to and including a ban on production, to be placed on the use of a new chemical before it is entered into commerce.” In addition to TSCA, consumer product safety legislation and additional laws and/or regulations at the state level provide further oversight.

Q: Is the use of flame retardants regulated outside of the United States?

A: The chemical industry engages in global commerce and, as a result, the manufacturing and processing of chemicals undergo review in many countries around the world. For example, the European Union’s (EU) Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), which went into effect in 2008, requires chemical manufacturers or importers in the European Union to demonstrate their products are safe for people and the environment. In addition, in 2006, the EU implemented the RoHS Directive, the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. RoHS bans the sale of any new electrical and electronic equipment placed on the EU market that does not comply with agreed upon levels of six different chemicals, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers used as flame retardants.

 
Q: Over the last few years, have any flame retardants been removed from the market?

A: Discussions between the Environmental Protection Agency and manufacturers and importers of DecaBDE (decabromodiphenyl ether) resulted in an EPA-Industry DecaBDE Phase-Out Initiative in 2009. As part of the initiative, leading producers of DecaBDE have committed to voluntarily phasing out the production of decaBDE in the United States by 2013. DecaBDE is an effective flame retardant that has been used in transportation, electrical products and electronics, textiles and upholstered furniture for more than 30 years. At the same time, the voluntary decision to phase out production and offer customers alternative products represents the industry’s continued engagement in promoting a wide range of effective and sustainable flame retardants.

 In 2004, the only U.S. manufacturer of penta-brominated diphenyl ether (PentaBDE) and octabromodiphenyl ether (OctaBDE) voluntarily phased out the production and use of these chemicals. PentaBDE and OctaBDE were used as flame retardants in products including foam furniture, electronics and appliances. Subsequently, the EPA also ruled that no new manufacture or import of these two chemicals could occur without first going through an EPA evaluation. As of June 2011, eleven states have enacted legislation banning both chemicals.

Q: Why is the EPA reviewing HBCD?

A: HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) is a brominated flame retardant, primarily used in polystyrene thermal insulation foams utilized by the building and construction industry to meet fire safety standards. HBCD is very effective at low levels, offering a high degree of fire safety without affecting the quality of thermal insulation, which is important to energy conservation and efficiency. Another unique feature of HBCD in this application is that it is unlikely that it would be released into the environment because it is bound in the polymer matrix. Currently, it is the only commercially available flame retardant that can function in this application. HBCD is also used to a much lesser extent in the back coating of textiles, which allows upholstered foam furniture to be fire-resistant.

In August 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated an action plan to further review HBCD to determine whether it posed an unacceptable risk to humans. According to EPA, HBCD has been shown to be persistent and bioaccumulative. EPA intends to consider taking action under the Toxic Substances Control Act to address the managing, processing and distribution of HBCD. EPA has also initiated an alternatives assessment—EPA’s process, under its Design for Environment program, for identifying and evaluating possible alternative chemicals. In 2008, the EU placed HBCD on the list of Substances of Very High Concern because studies showed that HBCD was toxic to aquatic organisms and may have long-term negative effects in the aquatic environment.

Q: California has a tougher flammability standard for furniture than the rest of the country. Why is it so important to keep those standards in place?

A: In 1975, with the implementation of Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), California set the toughest furniture flammability standards in the United States and is currently the only state with fire safety regulations for upholstered furniture. TB 117 requires upholstered furniture to withstand 12 seconds of an open flame, from heat sources such as candles, lighters and matches, without igniting. The state’s continued support for maintaining the standards outlined in TB 117 is not only an endorsement of the important fire protection function of flame retardants, but also a recognition of the critical safety net 12 seconds may offer someone who is trying to escape a fire, particularly those most at risk (i.e. children and the elderly).

In 2003, the New Zealand Fire Service Commission conducted research to assess whether new regulations to improve the fire safety of upholstered furniture should be introduced in that country. The commission’s March 2003 published research included an analysis of TB 117. According to the report, In California, where mandatory standards for home furnishings have been in place since 1975, incidences of fire death, injury and property loss have fallen faster than in the United States as a whole.  In addition, between 1978 (three years after TB117 was implemented) and 1995, the number of deaths in the United States where upholstered furniture was the first item to be ignited declined by 58.1 percent. The number of upholstered furniture fires declined by 68.4 percent.

Classes of FR’s

Flame retardants are generally classified according to their chemical makeup. The most common classes of flame retardants are: Brominated, Phosphorus, Nitrogen, Chlorinated and Inorganic.

Brominated

Brominated compounds are used for a number of purposes, but the major use is as flame retardants. Bromine interacts with the fire cycle in the gas phase to stop the chemical chain reaction that leads to flame formation and a self-sustaining fire. In essence, brominated flame retardants either prevent a fire from starting in the first place, or significantly slow a fire down. Brominated compounds also can be added to materials like plastic without altering their properties. As a result, they can be used in many applications. Highly effective, brominated flame retardants are used in a variety of materials, including textiles, electronics, building materials, plastics and foams. They are often used in combination with an antimony trioxide synergist.

Phosphorus

Flame retardants containing phosphorus interrupt the combustion process by promoting “charring.” In the presence of a heat source, phosphorus flame retardants release phosphoric acid which causes the material to char and form a thick glassy layer of carbon. This carbonated char stops the decomposition process (pyrolysis) and prevents the release of flammable gases, essentially cutting off fuel to the flame. It also provides a barrier between the material and the heat source. Phosphorus flame retardants are used in some upholstered furniture, foam mattresses, textiles, television casings, rubber and plastics.

Nitrogen

Nitrogen flame retardants work in several key ways to provide fire protection. At high temperatures, they enable the formation of stable molecular compounds that stop the decomposition process (pyrolysis) and prevent the release of flammable gases. They also release inert nitrogen gases that inhibit the chain reaction leading to combustion, and can act as a synergist when combined with phosphorus to reinforce their flame retardant functions. Nitrogen flame retardants are used in insulation, furniture foams and electronics.

Chlorinated

Like bromine-based flame retardants, chlorinated flame retardants interact with the fire cycle to stop flame formation. They are used in some polyurethane foam, rubber and flexible plastics.

 

Inorganic

A variety of inorganic compounds, most notably hydrated aluminum and magnesium oxides, are used as flame retardants, or, as is the case with antimony trioxide, as part of a flame retardant system in conjunction with bromine, phosphorus or nitrogen flame retardants. These flame retardants slow down the decomposition process and the release of flammable gases that fuel the combustion process, release inert gases that interrupt the chemical chain reaction that produces flames and produce a non-flammable and resistant layer on a material’s surface, reducing the release of flammable gases. Inorganic flame retardants are used in some plastics, paints, adhesives, rubber, textile back coatings, wire and cable.