Part 2: Safer Furniture, Safer Buildings: Flame Retardants and our Environment

Jan. 31, 2015
<p>This post addresses other areas of the building where we can begin reducing toxic flame retardants, and what all of us can do to make this change permanent.</p>
In part 1 of this post, we talked about the fact that designers, end users, building owners, and consumers need to know there are new options for healthier interior products, and how it is now possible to meet the most widely used furniture flammability standard without using toxic flame retardant chemicals. We also discussed why we should avoid halogenated and organophosphate flame retardants—because of their toxicity to humans, animals, and the environment. In addition, while we all bear the health burden of these chemicals (most of us in the United States have flame retardants in our blood ), the benefit in furniture fire safety is limited at best.
Now we will address other areas of the building where we can begin reducing toxic flame retardants, and what all of us can do to make this change permanent.
Flame retardants (FRs) of various types can be found in other areas of all interior environments because of flammability requirements established by building and other codes. Wood (as a finish), intumescent paint for fire proofing of structural steel, carpet, carpet padding, textiles, furniture, electronics (including wiring and cabling), and building insulation all must meet performance criteria established by the codes.
Halogenated (HFRs) or organophosphate flame retardants are commonly found in all of these products except wood and carpet. With the adoption of Technical Bulletin 117-2013 in California (See part 1 for more info.), furniture foam can now be specified without added flame retardants. That change will also impact carpet padding, which is typically made from recycled furniture foam. Specifiers will have to be conscientious about requiring foam without flame retardants until it becomes the default foam variety.
There are a few formulations of water based intumescent paint with trace amounts of chlorinated paraffin (a Halogenated Flame Retardant) that are a good alternative to the standard formulas. Carboline A/D Firefilm® III C and Isolatek WB are two common options on the market that are both “below all limits” per a national intumescent paint expert—but if documentation is a key consideration, be sure ask for the parts per million (PPM). Or, consider if this finish is necessary at all; it is one of the most expensive ways to treat steel, and is typically used only where it will be an important design element.
For consumer electronics like televisions and computer monitors, cell phones, tablets, etc., look for the TCO label to know if the item has been third-party certified to contain far less HFRs.  
Label for electronics with reduced HFRs.
TCO “Edge” is the most stringent TCO standard and it includes criteria to identify companies that do not use halogenated substances. Many manufacturers have self-reported eliminating HFRs on their websites, including Apple. For wire and cabling, innovations are on the horizon. Most plastic sheathing still contains HFRs, but this industry is working to reduce toxicity; talking with your suppliers, installers, and consultants about the concern around HFRs and demanding safer alternatives will help keep that momentum going to make real change.
Foam plastic building insulation represents a significant use of HFRs in buildings. Alternative insulation materials are available (see resources at, but foam plastic insulation is still the best choice for many applications due to energy efficiency, cost, or other parameters. For these reasons, there is a movement to change the building codes to maintain fire safety while allowing for reduced use of unnecessary flame retardants.
The International Building Code (IBC) is revised every three years; federal, state, and local jurisdictions then adopt and enforce this code. To make a change in the IBC, code language must be proposed and substantiated. A committee of building and other officials hears arguments for and against proposed changes at hearings in April. Unsuccessful proposals may be revised and presented again in October.  Proposals to revise the 2018 edition of the IBC will be evaluated this year.
Click here to get the latest version of the IBC.

The Safer Insulation Solution, a team of building, design, and fire safety professionals, scientists, and others, has submitted two proposals to change the 2018 IBC. These proposals would enable safe use of foam plastic insulation without flame retardants in certain building applications.  To support these proposals, you can send a letter of support, and you can testify at code hearings. Architects, designers, code officials, contractors, installers, specifiers, building owners, facility engineers, and other stakeholders are encouraged to contact Avery Lindeman at [email protected] to learn more and get involved

The other avenue for making lasting change is at the legislative level (federal, state, or local). One example is a 2013 state Assembly Bill in California (AB127), which required the state Fire Marshal to evaluate and possibly update flammability standards for building insulation materials. The outcome of that process is expected later this year.

Thanks to an increasing awareness of the health hazards of flame retardant chemicals, as well as the lack of fire safety benefit these chemicals sometimes provide, regulations, codes, and standards are evolving to better protect human and ecological health. We can all support this process by demanding fire safety with fewer unnecessary flame retardants.

About the Authors

Arlene Blum, PhD

Chemist and mountaineer, Arlene is also executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. The Institute works to implement and support chemical policies protecting human health and the global environment. This work has contributed to stopping the use of tens of millions of pounds of toxic flame retardants. Blum’s many awards include being named one of 100 “Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet” (National Women’s History Project).

Suzanne Drake

Suzanne is an interior designer with Perkins+Will, and co-chairs the firm-wide Healthy Materials Task Force. Her career has focused on commercial interiors, specializing in creating healthy environments and green interiors. She draws on nearly two decades of supporting client initiatives and environmental goals. Her book EcoSoul: Save the Planet and Yourself by ReThinking your Everyday Habits was published in 2013.

Jean Hansen

With over 30 years of experience in sustainable design, planning, and interior design, Jean is responsible for advancing HDR’s sustainability initiatives globally in project and research work for healthcare and institutional environments. She has worked on the development of many nationally recognized sustainable resources, some of which include the USGBC’s LEED Healthcare rating system, Green Guide for Health Care, BIFMA’s level, and more recently, the Health Product Declaration (HPD).

Judy Levine

Judy leads the Center for Environmental Health’s flame retardant campaign.  She works closely with large purchasers on how to use their purchasing power to move the market towards safer products. Judy has developed a series of resources for purchasers including purchasing guides for flame retardant-free products, model procurement language, specification guidelines, and letters for suppliers.  Most recently, Judy helped author a flame retardant disclosure bill in California.

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