October 9-15 is National Fire Prevention Week; a commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that has been observed since 1922. The fire killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire began on October 8, but continued into and did most of its damage on October 9.
As designers of buildings we are continually faced with rigorous building code requirements intended to protect the health, safety and welfare of their occupants. There are a few simple things we can do to effectively protect from death or injury in a fire, but there are some things being done in the name of fire safety that are actually ineffective and harmful. It is important that we as specifiers know what we are specifying and why we are doing so.
One such item to be aware of is halogenated flame retardants which include brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. Within this class of retardants are the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). The EPA tells us that there is growing evidence PBDEs may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity and neurodevelopmental toxicity. The mechanisms or pathways through which PBDEs get into the environment and humans are not known yet, but could include releases from manufacturing or processing of the chemicals into products like plastics or textiles, aging and wear of the end consumer products, and direct exposure during use (e.g., from furniture).
The EPA issued a regulation to complement the voluntary phase out by the one US manufacturer of two of the three types of PBDEs in 2005. The regulation states that no new manufacture or import of these chemicals may occur without EPA approval. The remaining PBDE still being utilized, decaBDE, continues to be a cause of great concern. Some states have banned it against heavy pressure from an industry lobbyist group disguised as a grass roots community group called Citizens for Fire Safety under the argument that there were no safe alternatives to the PBDEs. That claim was untrue; the passing of Washington's ban was contingent upon finding a safe alternative and was approved by a fire safety committee and the state's fire marshal.
Among those that have tested highest for the body burden of these fire retardants are school children living in California. Because of the State of California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation Technical Bulletin 117, and what is described as obsolete flammability standards that require the non-essential application of toxic flame retardants, these chemicals continue to persist in the US. These standards require the foam to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds before igniting. It's not a case of a simple trade off for increased fire safety vs. some minute parts per million of toxic contamination. These chemicals can make up to 10% of the weight of foam in furniture, leaving pounds of contaminated dust to surround us. Also important to note; these fire retardants don't prevent things from catching fire. They slow down ignition by 6-12 seconds. The NFPA has stated that there is no evidence that these chemicals reduced fire deaths in California. Greater reductions were found in other states without the requirement and is mostly attributable to the decline in smoking and improved electrical and building codes.
The point is we are surrounded by chemicals. When we put them in the buildings we design we should know what we are doing. Plastic insulation materials, such as polystyrene, polyisocyanurate and polyurethane, that can help reduce climate change, often contain flame retardants (not all PBDEs) which can cause serious health and environmental harm. One way designers can be proactive in working toward projects that offer healthier environments is to pursue USGBC's LEED Pilot Credit 11, Chemical Avoidance in Building Material, and/or Pilot Credit 54, Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern in Building Materials, both of which support the reduced quantity of indoor contaminants that are harmful to the comfort and well-being of installers and occupants.
Much of the effort made in the green building movement is done to avoid regulation or stay ahead of it. Unlike pharmaceuticals, chemicals are not required to be tested before they are used on the masses. It then becomes the responsibility of the EPA to attempt to make regulations once a substance has been deemed unsafe. Getting the proof to make that statement is very difficult, can take decades and is often mired in politics. We should not wait for the government to require us to do the right thing, but should move forward arming ourselves with information and best practices. Through GS&P's subscription to buildinggreen.com and other similar sources, we can review products for unbiased reviews and recommendations on green building materials to help make more informed choices.
This year's National Fire Prevention Week theme is "It's Fire Prevention Week! Protect Your Family From Fire!". In addition to developing and practicing a home fire evacuation plan and checking your fire alarms, think about the other ways you can help protect your family and your home from fire-related harm and unwanted chemicals. Step one: actually read all of those tags on the upholstered furniture and mattresses in your home and figure out what they mean.