Many building materials and products used in interiors, including the foams used in furniture construction, are required by the building code to be treated with fire retardant chemicals – even those products used in the residential environment. In addition, many fabrics are required to be treated with these chemicals, including clothing and bed linens, and all textiles used in the commercial environment.
There is a tremendous and growing body of evidence that these chemicals accumulate in the body and cause a number of major medical problems including cancers and neurological, reproductive, thyroid, and developmental problems, as well as genetic mutations. Studies have shown that many marine mammals and household pets are dying as a result of the accumulation of these chemicals, and children in particular are becoming seriously ill as a result – many more than would likely die in the fires these products are intended to mitigate. It is inevitable that many of the increasing medical problems that we are all experiencing in this day and age are a result of these widespread practices as well.
Obviously, this is a major public health issue of incalculable proportions that affects not only people living today, but will affect future generations because of the genetic mutations and impossibility of getting rid of these chemicals. And yet, because these products are actually required by the building codes, we either cannot buy products for buildings or interiors without these chemicals already impregnated, or we as designers and architects must actually actively and deliberately specify them separately.
Yes, we are actually required by law to use products in your homes and businesses that are known to put the health and safety of every person who ever enters a building at clear and obvious risk every single day.
This is particularly ironic in light of the arguments that ASID and other pro-legislation groups are putting forth about how designers who go through their mandated educational, experience, and testing pathway are specially trained to protect the health and safety of the public, how this particular training pathway is necessary for us to know how to do that, and how no one who doesn’t have this particular cocktail of experiences could possibly know anything about protecting the public. This is one of their primary arguments for why interior designers should be licensed – but they are obviously basing the requirements on “knowledge” and codes that actually cause considerably more harm to people and the environment than it could ever prevent!
And what’s more, the harm resulting from these chemicals is happening even without them burning. Once they do ignite in a fire (and eventually, they will still burn), then even more toxic chemicals are released into the environment. All burning materials do this, but when you burn nasties like these compounds, you get even more and nastier gasses released into the air.
I wonder how many interior designers actually know anything at all about these issues, especially those who do have professional training? I know that I was certainly never taught about them in design school at either of the two prominent schools that I attended. Sure, they taught us about the codes requiring these chemicals and testing procedures, but definitely not about the hazards inherent in them (or how the tests for flammability don’t actually translate to real life conditions and are therefore themselves invalid as predictors of safety, but that’s a topic for a separate post).
And needless to say, this sure as heck isn’t a very green practice, either – and yet we are required to even apply these toxic chemicals to the most green of materials.
Please read the article below from the Green Science Policy Institute website for more details.
From the Green Science Policy Institute website:
The Fire Retardant Dilemma: Should Green Buildings Contain Toxic Fire Retardant Chemicals?
Polystyrene, polyisocyanurate, and polyurethane are highly energy efficient insulation materials whose use in green buildings is increasing. However, due to their flammability, fire retardant chemicals (FRs) must be added to meet building codes. Many of the FRs currently in use are halogenated organic chemicals, meaning that they contain chlorine or bromine bonded to carbon. Most of these FRs have not been adequately evaluated for their impact on human health and the environment. When tested, many are found to be persistent, bioaccumulative, and/or toxic. Being persistent means that they do not break down into safer chemicals in the environment over months or years. Being bioaccumulative means that they accumulate in plants and animals, becoming more concentrated as they move up the food chain. Additionally, some of these FRs are carcinogens, mutagens, and/or reproductive, neurological, thyroid, and/or developmental toxicants.
The impacts of exposure to fire retardant chemicals upon workers, human and animal health, building occupants, wildlife and the global environment should be considered when selecting insulation materials.
* All polystyrene foam insulation used in building insulation (both XPS, such as Styrofoam, and EPS) is treated with hexabromocyclododecane, (HBCD), a persistent, bioaccumulating, and toxic fire retardant. This chemical was recently nominated for the first EU list of sixteen “Substances of Very High Concern” and will likely be banned in Europe. It has been widely detected in household dust, sewage sludge, breast milk and body fluids as well as wildlife and the global environment. HBCD is also used with fabrics and plastic; however 85% is used with polystyrene insulation, which is likely the primary source of the global contamination.
* Polyisocyanurate (polyurethane) board often contains TCPP (tris (1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate). While its toxicity in mammals appears to be limited, the effects of long-term exposure are unknown, and it is toxic in aquatic environments. Triethyl phosphate (TEP), a non-halogenated FR used in the EU, is a safer alternative.
* Polyurethane boards can contain up to five percent “blowing agents“, which are usually volatile hydrocarbons or halogenated hydrocarbons. Polyurethane spray foam formulations can contain both blowing agents and proprietary FRs with unknown composition and health effects.
* For example, Dow THERMAX(TM) Insulation board contains a maximum of ten percent of TCPP and five percent 1-Bromopropane. The MSDS states that this blowing agent can cause central nervous system effects in humans and harm to male and female reproductive organs and the liver as well as interference with reproduction and fertility and toxicity to the fetus in animal studies. The sheet also states that “normal handling and cutting are unlikely to result in exposure levels of 1-bromopropane sufficient to cause the listed effects.”
The impact of long term and cumulative exposures to mixtures of such chemicals upon the health of workers, inhabitants of homes, and the environment is not known.
Halogenated fire retardants are becoming widespread in the environment
Halogenated fire retardants (FRs) can migrate out of furniture foam, electronics, fabric and other consumer products as well as foam insulation so humans are exposed to a “cocktail” of such toxins. Levels of FRs are increasing rapidly in household dust, human breast milk, and wild animals. The chemicals are widely distributed in the outdoor environment with the highest concentrations in the Arctic and marine mammals. Certain classes of brominated fire retardants, the polybrominated diphenyl ethers, have been banned for most applications, but other brominated compounds have taken their place in consumer products without adequate studies to determine their health and environmental safety.
How to reduce the health and environmental hazard from FRs in insulation
* Develop design guidelines, green building credit systems, and codes to encourage designers to:
o Consider the toxicity of insulation options when selecting insulation types.
o Consider alternate pathways to attaining needed levels of fire safety, such as designing with fire barriers or other materials to reduce flammability.
* Encourage research and use of alternative, non-halogenated fire retardant additives such as sodium borate and triethyl phosphate (TEP).
* Support governmental programs to require full health testing of all chemicals and use of safer alternatives where available.
Energy Efficiency of Insulation
Insulation Type R-value per Inch of Thickness Fire Retardant
Fiberglass blanket or batt 3.2 non-flammable
High performance fiberglass batt 3.8 non-flammable
Loose-fill fiberglass 2.5 non-flammable
Loose-fill rock wool 2.8 non-flammable
Loose-fill cellulose 3.5 sodium borate 20%
Dense-pack cellulose 4.0 sodium borate 20%
Expanded polystyrene board (EPS) 3.8 HBCD 2.5%
Extruded polystyrene board (XPS) 4.8 HBCD 0.7%
Polyisocyanurate board, unfaced 5.8 TCPP 5% – 10%
Polyisocyanurate board, foil-faced 7.0 TCPP 5% – 10%
Spray polyurethane foam 5.9 ?? 15% – 40%
Reference: Article by Paul Fisette – © 2008
Green Science Policy Institute: Presentations from past conferences
Health Care without Harm fact sheets:
Flame Retardants: Alarming Increases in Humans and the Environment
Brominated Flame Retardants: Rising Levels of Concern