CA to Review Flame Retardants


The days of using hazardous flame-retardant chemicals in building foam insulation may be numbered in California, under a new law that will take a closer look at those chemicals.

A new bill, AB 127 (Fire safety: fire retardants: building insulation), signed into law Oct. 5 directs California’s Fire Marshal and Building Standards Commission to reassess flammability regulations for building insulation.

While the law does not ban the use of the chemicals or revise standards on its own, it requires the officials to consider whether flame retardants are necessary to maintain stringent fire safety standards, Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), the Assembly Member who authored the bill, announced Oct. 8.

Recent studies have suggested that the addition of flame-retardant chemicals does not benefit fire safety for most applications, according to Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, a fire scientist. Other studies have linked the chemicals to harmful health effects, including reduced fertility, developmental problems and cancer.

The new law follows another California proposal that could essentially ban the addition of flame-retardant chemicals in other materials, including furniture upholstery, electronics and baby gear, according to reports. Progress updates and documents related to that proposal, led by The California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, are available here.

Dated Codes

California’s current standards governing fire safety of building insulation were passed in piecemeal fashion throughout the 1960s and 1970s, explains Skinner in this fact sheet.

“The code requires (1) that a thermal barrier be installed to provide structural elements at least 15 minutes of protection from fire, and (2) that insulation pass a test for flammability without the thermal barrier,” she said.

While the language does not specifically call for the use of flame retardants on plastic foam insulation, Skinner says they are commonly used to meet the code requirements.

As a result, many homes and buildings throughout the state have been constructed with potentially toxic chemicals.

Proposal by 2015

AB 127 states that the Fire Marshal may propose updated flammability standards to the California Building Standards Commission by June 1, 2015.

Should a proposal be submitted, the Commission would be free to adopt or reject it.


California’s new law has the support of environmental groups, heath advocacy organizations, and the U.S. Green Building Council.

building on fire

The Energy Efficient Foam Coalition says flame-retardant chemicals used in foam insulation serve "a vital role" in fire safety.

"Green building products need to be both high-performing and healthy," Dennis Murphy, chair of USGBC California, said in a statement.

"AB 127 sends a clear signal to consumers, installers and manufacturers that safer, healthier products are good for us all and good business."

... And Detractors

On the other hand, the American Chemistry Council's Energy Efficient Foam Coalition said in a statement: “At a minimum, maintaining fire safety in homes and buildings must be the priority for any discussions or actions related to flammability standards for building materials.

“Flame retardants in foam insulation serve a vital role in fire safety and provide an important layer of protection to people, homes and buildings.”

The group stressed that the “emphasis on fire prevention codified in AB 127” is necessary to ensure the highest standards of fire safety.

“We look forward to extensive consultation with the California State Fire Marshal and others to validate the existing flammability standards and explore potential improvements,” the group added.

Members of the group include the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry, EIFS Industry Members Association, the EPS (expanded polystyrene) Industry Alliance, and the Metal Construction Association.

EPA Oversight, Report

In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quietly dropped longstanding safety proposals to step up its oversight of flame retardants and building chemicals and require companies to disclose more chemical information. See “EPA Retreats on 2 Chemical Rules” for more information.

Meanwhile, the EPA released a draft report documenting risks and alternatives for the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), commonly used in building insulation.

The 199-page document is available for public review and comment until Nov. 22.


Tagged categories: Building envelope; Building Envelope; Coating chemistry; Construction chemicals; Flame-retardant coatings; Insulation; Regulations; Spray foam

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