Do Flame Retardants work?

Flame retardants are a key tool in the fire safety tool box. They are a widely-recognised fire safety tool that can provide the first line of defense for fire safety, though there are many other technologies that have an equally important role to play (e.g. sprinklers, smoke detectors). Collectively, these tools have made a real difference in reducing fire injuries and deaths, even as fuel loads and potentially flammable materials have increased dramatically in households and public spaces over recent decades.

The importance of flame retardants has been acknowledged by a wide variety of manufacturing sectors, which rely on them to help meet government-mandated or voluntary flammability standards for products and component parts. Moreover, there are several leading studies that demonstrate that flame retardants can and do play an important role in fire safety. We share a brief description of these studies below, but also include full PDF versions of the studies for your own review.

Industry Standards

As a general matter, modern technologies have led to a host of new concerns related to fire safety. The increased use of electrical and electronic equipment, for example, has led to an increase in potential heat sources in the home that raise the potential for fire risk. A wide range of manufacturers recognise these risks and, as responsible companies, address potential fire risks such that today, fire safety is often assumed in modern-day products.

Industries—from electronics to construction to automotive—have addressed fire safety through the development of technical standards for particular components or products where there is a potential fire danger. These technical standards are often developed through a consensus approach, and there is often careful thought given to ensuring that standards do not favor one method of compliance over another but rather focus only on meeting a fire safety test. In some instances manufacturers voluntarily decide to meet particular product fire safety standards. In other cases, product components must meet fire safety tests as a regulatory prerequisite for sale into a market.

Flame retardants have emerged as one solution to meet these tests and achieve the desired fire safety for products. This has been demonstrated over and over as component parts in many sectors are subjected to fire safety tests and meet these tests through the use of flame retardants.

In the U.S. there are several major independent organisations that develop standards, including the United States National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL), and the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM). In addition, broader industry codes will often incorporate fire safety testing requirements, including the International Building Code. Governments may also incorporate fire safety testing protocols into regulatory mandates for products and/or components, as is done for example at the U.S.Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There are regional and international standard-setting organisations, including the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) that have developed dozens of fire safety standards.

It is worth looking at all of these sources to get a sense for the breadth and depth of fire safety standards that are in the marketplace, the vast majority of which are performance-based and do not dictate the use of any one fire safety solution like flame retardants. Manufacturers of components parts and products can and do, however, rely on flame retardants to meet many of these standards. Manufacturers choose to use flame retardants taking into account a number of other factors, such as design, functionality, practicality, safety and cost. Within this context, flame retardants can play an important role in providing manufacturers with product solutions to address fire safety concerns.
Study on Overall Effectiveness of Flame Retardants

There has been some confusion in the media about one particular study that evaluates the benefits of flame retardants—Fire Hazard Comparison of Fire-Retarded and Non-Fire-Retarded Products, V. Babrauskas et. al (1988). The U.S. Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards completed this study, which was sponsored by the Flame Retardant Chemicals Association. The study was intended to measure the overall effectiveness of flame retardants, not any one fire standard. It does this objectively.

Specifically, the study tests five product types:
• Polystyrene television cabinet
• Polyphenylene oxide business machine housing
• Polyurethane foam-padded upholstered chair
• Electrical cable with polyethylene wire insulation and rubber jacketing
Polyester/glass electric circuit board

The study authors tested both the individual products as well as a simulated room that contained all of the products. In evaluating the simulated room, the following conclusions were stated:

“For the FR [fire retardants] tests, the average available escape time was more than 15-fold greater than for the occupants of the NFR [non-fire retarded] room. With regard to the production of combustion products:
• The amount of material consumed in the fire for the FR tests was less than half the amount lost in the NFR tests.
• The FR tests indicated an amount of heat released from the fire which was ¼ that released by the NFR tests.
• The total quantities of toxic gasses produced in the room fire tests, expressed in “CO equivalents,” were 1/3 for the FR products, compared to the NFR ones.
• The production of smoke was not significantly different between the room fire tests using NFR products and those with FR products.
Thus in these tests, the fire retardant additives did decrease the overall fire hazard of their host products.
The above conclusions are specifically pertinent only to the materials actually examined. Thus, while it has been demonstrated that very significantly enhanced fire performance can be obtained with fire-retarded products, such improvements are by no means to be automatically expected from all fire-retarded products. Instead, it will be necessary to test and evaluate proposed new systems individually. However, these tests do show that the proper selection of fire retardants can markedly improve the fire safety of specific products.” (Executive Summary, pg. xii)

This study stands on its own as a very strong piece of science that demonstrates that flame retardants can and do provide a measurable fire safety benefit. In 2009, the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) re-cited this study and its conclusion that the flame retardant treated products studied provide a 15-times greater escape time compared to the non-flame retardant treated products.

Study on Effectiveness of Flame Retardant Use in Upholstered Furniture

A study commissioned by the U.K. government that evaluates whether properly flame retarded materials can provide a meaningful difference in fire safety. The 2009 report commissioned in the U.K. by the Consumer and Competition Policy Directorate of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills examined the effectiveness of that nation’s flammability standards for Furniture and Furnishings (F&F). F&F products sold in the U.K. must meet three specific tests (cigarette ignition, match ignition and ignitability of flaming sources). The study found that the regulations “matched the main causes and lethality of F&F fires in the mid-1980s…and still matched the main causes and consequences of F&F fires in the period 1997-2006.” The study included a detailed analysis of recent fire data and offered an endorsement of the regulations (See pg. 30), which furniture manufactures selling into the U.K. market meet often through the use of flame retardants.

The following italicized section is directly quoted from the report:
• Both the number and lethality of F&F fires rose before the introduction of the regulations and fell afterwards.
• When the trend in F&F fires was compared to the trend in Other Fires, using Other Fires as a “control” group of fires that were unlikely to be impacted by the FFRs, it was found that:
o The number of F&F fires fell at a faster rate than Other Fires, declining by 37% compared to 10% between 1981-85 and 2003-07.
o The number of fire deaths fell by 64% for F&F fires and 44% for Other Fires
between 1981-85 and 2003-07.
o The number of F&F fire casualties fell by 26% over the study period compared to a rise of 75% in Other Fire casualties.
o There was a marked difference in the trend for the lethality of F&F fires relative to Other Fires, i.e. there was a far greater decline in the lethality of F&F fires than Other Fires.

• Whilst both F&F and Other Fires may have declined due to fewer adult smokers, the decline in F&F fires associated with smokers’ materials was greater than the decline for Other Fires.
• A very small part of the decline in the lethality of F&F fires can be attributed to the increased use of smoke alarms, whilst a larger part of the reduction in the lethality of Other Fires can be attributed to the increased use of smoke alarms
• Thus, whilst there were some common factors underlying the trends in F&F and Other Fires, F&F fires, deaths and casualties were found to have declined more so.

“The reduction in the rate and lethality of F&F fires was estimated to equate to 54 lives saved per year, 780 fewer casualties per year and 1065 fewer fires per year in the period 2003-2007.”

(Greenstreet Berman Ltd., “A statistical report to investigate the effectiveness of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulation 1988,” Research commissioned by Consumer and Competition Policy Directorate, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), December 2009,  p. 10.)

Experiment Showing the Effectiveness of Flame Retardant Use in Building Materials

One recent fire that attracted significant attention due to its 100 fatalities was the Rhode Island nightclub fire. A less widely known element to the story is that many attributed the fire’s rapid spread to the soundproofing material used at the nightclub, which reportedly did not meet the flammability provisions required under state building code. In the aftermath of the tragedy, NIST ran a study to make specific recommendations to improve the fire safety of nightclubs as a result of the agency’s investigation of the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at The Station nightclub in W. Warwick, R.I. As part of their work, NIST scientists ran flammability experiments of non-fire retarded and fire retarded soundproofing material using similar pyrotechnics to those that were used the night of the fire. These materials were purchased from a distributor in several lots, but no information is given as to the types of flame retardants used. The study concluded the following:

“The experiments that involved discharging pyrotechnic devices against a foam-covered wall demonstrated that the shower of sparks could ignite non-fire retardant polyurethane foam, but that the sparks were not able to ignite fire retardant polyurethane foam, wood panelling or gypsum board within the 15 second discharge. The ignition of the non-fire retarded polyurethane foam was similar to the ignition sequence observed in the video of the incident.”

Additionally, one of the main recommendations included the following:

“Materials that ignite easily and propagate flames rapidly, such as non-fire retardant polyurethane foam, should be clearly identifiable and be specifically forbidden as an interior finish material in all nightclubs.”

The study clearly indicates that flame retardants can have an important role in fire safety—in this case, in preventing a fire from starting.

Research Showing Effectiveness of Flame Retardant Use in Televisions

The U.K. Consumer Affairs Directorate with the Department of Trade and Industry published a study in April 2001 entitled “Causes of Fires Involving Television Sets in Dwellings.” The main driver for the study was a noted increase in fire incidents from 1993 to 2001. As part of the study, the U.K. government compared flammability of EU-sourced TVs against TV produced for the US market, which were then made to meet a different flammability standard.

The study found the following:

“Televisions on sale in the U.K. and Europe are manufactured to IEC 60065, but televisions in the U.S. are manufactured to a voluntary U.S. standard that specifies the use of flame-retardant plastic in the TV case. A similar standard applies in Japan. Both United States and European standards appear to give an adequate level of protection from the risk of fire started by an internal fire source in the TV.

However, differences exist in how easily TVs manufactured to each standard can be ignited by an external source. If a TV does catch fire, or is involved in a fire, it represents a high fire load factor. Tests, undertaken by FRS [Fire Research Station] as part of this project, show that TVs manufactured to the basic requirements of the international regulations IEC 60065 can be ignited by a relatively low energy source, such as a nightlight. Once ignited, they burn fiercely and give off toxic smoke.

In contrast, TV cases built to the voluntary US standard are dosed with flame-retardant and are very difficult to ignite and tend to self-extinguish. Once they are alight, however, they will also burn fiercely and give off toxic smoke. The U.K. has a risk of TV fires per million sets that is almost three times higher than in the US. This fact supports the case that some of the reported TV fires could be caused by ignition sources outside the TV.” (See pg. 4)

The Report indicates that flame retardants can and do make a difference in preventing a fire from starting. 
While the Report acknowledges the benefits, it also notes a desire to reduce the amount of flame retardants used in TVs. At the time of writing this report, there was some concern over the use of certain flame retardants in the TV casings. The EU Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, which was adopted in 2003 (i.e. two years after the Report was issued), has essentially removed certain flame retardants from consideration in these applications. In a recent revision to the RoHS Directive, there was some discussion of adding additional flame retardants, but ultimately this was not done. EFRA members are committed to developing alternatives that can meet regulatory requirements in the EU and around the world, provide the necessary level of performance, and have an improved environmental and human health profile.