‘Toward Fire Safety without Chemical Risk’: Re-thinking the Use of Flame Retardants

April 22, 2019
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Heather Stapleton

DURHAM, N.C. – As evidence mounts about the environmental and human health risks posed by flame retardants – and as questions grow about the level of fire protection they actually afford – it’s time to re-evaluate the necessity of their use in some products and replace them, whenever possible, with safer alternatives.

That’s the takeaway of a peer-reviewed commentary, published April 19 in Science, by two of the world’s leading environmental chemists, Heather Stapleton of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and Jacob de Boer of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Halogenated flame-retardant compounds are used widely in consumer goods such as electronics, furniture foam, textiles, carpets and many children’s products.

In their commentary, de Boer and Stapleton note that for more than 20 years studies have shown these compounds can leach into the environment, with particularly high concentrations found in fish and marine mammals. Studies have also raised concerns about the carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting effects the compounds may have in humans.

Despite these concerns – and the growing availability of alternative flame-retardant materials that are environmentally friendly and pose no known human risks – global production of halogenated flame retardants has continued to rise. Flame retardants that have been banned or voluntarily withdrawn from the market due to concerns about their toxicity are often replaced with other compounds that also turn out to be harmful. Safety testing and regulatory oversight to protect consumers is insufficient or outdated in many countries.

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Jacob de Boer

“The recent United Nations Global Chemicals Outlook II predicts that the volume of chemicals used worldwide will double in the coming decade,” de Boer and Stapleton write. “It would be prudent to be more selective in the use of flame retardants and to potentially limit this increase.”

Flame retardants are needed in airplanes, cars, insulation and most electronics, but there are many questions about the need for them in furniture, children’s products, and even products like flags, the scientists say. In residential furniture, for instance, the use of flame retardants provides an extra 30 seconds, on average, for someone to escape from a newly started fire, and this benefit must be weighed against the increase of carbon monoxide and smoke produced by some flame retardants.

“The need for flame retardants in (these) materials may not be as high as industry lobbyists suggest,” de Boer and Stapleton write. “The data used to support the implementation of flammability standards, particularly for furniture and televisions, may be flawed or misinterpreted.

“No one wants to compromise fire safety,” they state, “but to protect human and environmental health, it is crucial that the use of flame retardants is critically evaluated to determine where they are needed and where they are not.”

Stapleton is the Dan and Bunny Gabel Associate Professor of Environmental Health at Duke’s Nicholas School. She and her team conduct their ongoing research on human exposures to potentially harmful environmental contaminants at the university’s Michael and Annie Falk Foundation Environmental Exposomics Laboratory.

De Boer is a professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biology, and director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Vrije University Amsterdam.

CITATION: “Toward Fire Safety without Chemical Risk,” Jacob de Boer and Heather M. Stapleton. Science, April 19. 2019. DOI: 10/1126/science.aax2054

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