Flame retardants – a constant hot topic
Flame retardants might as well be called “Everywhere Chemicals” because they are found far and wide, really anywhere you look. In carpets, mattresses, upholstered furniture, computers, television sets, cables, walls, car seats, clothing, animals, humans – you name it.
Flame retardants are added to manufactured materials and surface finishes or coatings, and the total consumption of these “everywhere chemicals” around the world amounts to more than 2.25 million tons per year.
Normally, chemicals are grouped together by their chemical structure, for example phthalates or bisphenols, but flame retardants are named after their function – namely to reduce or slow down the development of fire.
“Halogenated flame retardants release gases that are far more toxic and produce more smoke than non-halogenated ones”
Although flame retardants do not prevent a fire from happening at all, they can slow down its progress and, by doing so, significantly prolong the time available to extinguish the fire or escape to safety.
From a safety point of view, this function makes them important in fulfilling certain safety standards. However, flame retardants that are halogenated release gases that are far more toxic and produce much more smoke than non-halogenated ones. This is worrisome, not only in situations where there is a fire nearby, but also during controlled incineration of products that contain halogenated flame retardants, because these toxic gases are then released in large quantities into the environment.
Even when there is no fire at all, many of the halogenated flame retardants have been linked to negative effects in humans.
“Several have also been found to be persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic for the environment”
They are, for example, associated with learning disabilities, impaired motor skills and reduced cognitive functions as well as overall negative effects on children’s physical and mental development.
Several have also been found to be persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic for the environment. Human exposure to these “everywhere chemicals” mainly occurs through inhalation of dust and ingestion of food products. Infants are particularly exposed to halogenated flame retardants as many of them are fat-soluble and accumulate in the mother’s breast milk.
Considering the many health and environmental concerns associated with halogenated flame retardants, many of them are up for discussion at a policy level. In Europe, some flame-retardant chemicals are regulated or banned for use, and in the United States, several bans are entering into force on a state level.
California recently banned flame retardants in children’s products, mattresses and upholstered furniture (at levels above 1,000 parts per million), Washington banned five flame retardants from children’s products in 2016 and is now considering more.
Last year, Maine banned the use of all flame-retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture, and a few miles to the north, in Canada, the government plans to restrict the use of four flame retardants in the coming year.
“New techniques are constantly evolving and safer alternatives are gaining ground”
It is tricky to say anything general about flame retardants since they are grouped together according to their function – as chemical compounds they can differ significantly. But within this wide array of flame-retardant chemicals, choosing a non-halogenated one is extremely important. What is clear, however, is that new techniques are constantly evolving and safer alternatives are gaining ground.
One of these is a special fibre made from natural cellulose and silicon-nitrogen flame retardants from SOL FR, which is non-halogenated, biodegradable and does not release toxic smoke upon combustion.
Another is the Exolit AP range of products from Clariant. These are phosphorus-based flame retardants for plastics with low vapour pressure and solubility, which therefore fulfil stringent emission and migration requirements.
Marketplace welcomes all kinds of alternatives that work to reduce the use of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs). Click here to read more about criteria and verification.