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Research Puts Heat on Flame Retardants

Friday, November 30, 2012

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Flame retardants are backfiring when it comes to building safety, and current building codes that mandate the chemicals' use should be re-examined, new research warns.

Flame-retardant chemicals added to foam insulation to meet mandatory building codes not only harm health and the environment, but they don't do much good against fires, scientists from the University of California and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have concluded.

The researchers say the flame retardants make “no difference to the prevention of fire in buildings where a fire-safe thermal barrier already exists.”

Steiner Tunnel test
IntertekTesting Services Inc.

The study calls for exempting foam plastic insulation materials from the Steiner Tunnel test or the development of a "more accurate test" to measure the propagation of fire. Here, flame is applied to a ceiling to test insulation safety.

The study, “Flame Retardants in Building Insulation: A Case for Re-evaluating Building Codes,” recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Building Research and Information, argues that foam plastic insulation materials protected by a thermal barrier should be exempt from the “Steiner Tunnel test,” to avoid needless use of harmful chemicals.

Such a change would bring the United States in line with current regulations in Sweden and Norway, according to the study.

Dangers in Flame Retardants

The research team, led by Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas of Fire Science & Technology Inc. (Issaquah, WA), notes that chemicals like hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) and Tris (1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TCPP) that are routinely added to plastic insulation materials are semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs).

Those SVOCs do not bind to the insulation material and are known to be released into the environment throughout the life cycle of the insulation.

“The chemicals can persist and accumulate, and have been implicated in thyroid hormone disruption and nervous system development problems and are potentially carcinogenic,” according to the study.

The team of researchers also included scientists and representatives from the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (Tucson, AZ) and the Green Science Policy Institute (Berkeley, CA).

Passing the Steiner Test

Though building codes have never specified that these chemicals be added to foam plastic insulation, doing so is the “most common way” employed to meet the Steiner Tunnel test, the researchers note.

The Steiner Tunnel test is used to test the propagation of fire over the surface of all sorts of building materials in the early stages of fire, before flashover point is reached.

Moreover, foam plastics used for insulation have required a thermal barrier—usually 12.7 mm, or 1/2 inch thick —gypsum wallboard) since 1976.

"Foams that meet the Steiner Tunnel test still pose a fire hazard if used without a code-mandated thermal barrier," the study says.

'Costly, Ineffective and Damaging'

In its review of fire-safety literature since the mid-1970s, the team concludes that “the addition of halogenated organic compounds to plastic insulation materials such as polystyrene, polyisocyanurate and polyurethane is costly, ineffective and environmentally damaging.”

Spray foam insulation application
chicagosprayfoam / WikiMedia Commons

Foam insulation protected by a thermal barrier is fire safe, and flame retardants do not provide any additional benefit, the scientists contend.

Changing U.S. building codes to “exempt foam plastic insulation materials” from the Steiner test would avoid the use of thousands of tonnes of flame retardants that are known or suspected to be persistent organic pollutants, the study says.

“Such a change would…decrease the cost of foam plastic insulation and encourage the use of insulation materials for increasing building energy efficiency and mitigating climate change,” the researchers said.

“The potential for health and ecological harm from the use of flame retardant chemicals would be reduced, and the fire safety of buildings would be maintained.”

Manufacturers Defend Priorities

U.S. producers and distributors of chemicals and equipment used to make polyurethane and manufacturers of polyurethane products, including spray polyurethane foam, note that “health and safety are priorities for the entire spray polyurethane foam industry.” 

The Center for the Polyurethanes Industry (CPI) of the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, offers free and extensive information on spray foam health and safety considerations to homeowners, contractors and others.

In a statement, CPI said those with questions related to a specific spray foam product should contact the manufacturer for more information or refer to

Other Considerations

In addition to presenting an analysis of the problems associated with the Steiner Tunnel test, the University of California and Berkeley Lab study reviews the following:

  • Adequacy of the thermal barrier;
  • Fire propagation into a cavity constructed in violation of codes; and
  • Behavior of exposed foam insulation installed in violation of codes.

The study also notes alternative courses of action, including the possible development of a more accurate test, the use of different flame retardant chemicals and a range of options for mitigating the impact of the flame retardants currently used.

Finally, the researchers argue that adding the exemption would “not be without precedent.”  For example, they note, flame retardants were once regularly added to children’s pajamas, but their use was discontinued after a range of adverse environmental and health impacts were identified.

Action Urged

In light of their evidence, Babrauskas and his team argue, “an equivalent volte-face should be implemented in the U.S. building codes as soon as possible.”

The team also recommends “a root and branch review” of the process of designing fire standards and building codes, in particular to ensure that fire scientists, building code officials and other regulators consider the efficacy, life cycle, health and ecological impacts of building materials.

Related Research

Meanwhile, in another study recently published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health found that flame retardant compounds were linked to poorer attention, fine motor coordination, and IQ in school-aged children.

Flame retardant compounds linked to deficits in development
UC Berkeley

Researchers link prenatal and childhood exposure to PBDE flame retardants to deficits in motor and cognitive development among school-aged children.

That study, however, specifically focused on PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), a class of persistent, endocrine-disrupting compounds widely found in foam furniture, electronics, carpets, upholstery and other consumer products.


Tagged categories: Building codes; Center for the Polyurethanes Industry (CPI); Certifications and standards; Energy efficiency; Fire; Health and safety; Spray polyurethane foam

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