New study: Flame retardants tested do not increase fire fighters’ exposure to dangerous smoke

The peer-reviewed journal Fire Technology recently released a study showing that flame retardants do make a difference in preventing and slowing the spread of fire. The study also found that flame retardants do not appear to make smoke more toxic, a finding that will be of particular interest to fire fighters, many of whom have voiced concerns about smoke inhalation during home fires.

Dr. Matthew Blais, a nationally renowned fire science researcher at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, compared flexible polyurethane foams with and without flame retardants in furniture mock-ups to see if the chemicals were effective and if they in any way influenced smoke toxicity. He also looked at the impact of fire barrier materials on fire growth and smoke toxicity. The test included small and large open flame sources.

Here are some topline findings from the analysis…

  • Flame retardants in foams help prevent ignition from small open flame sources, potentially providing fire victims more escape time.
  • If the foam is ignited by either a cover or a larger open flame source, flame retarded foam burns more slowly and with less intensity than it would if it did not have the flame retardants.
  • The combination of a barrier with flame retarded foam made the furniture highly flame resistant.
  • The flame spread during the tests was 25 percent slower for flame retarded foam than it was for the non-flame retarded foam.
  • Fire barriers prevented ignition when they were fully intact. But they tended to produce smoke that was more toxic when the barrier was breached and the foam did not have flame retardants. The increased smoke toxicity was attributed to the fact that the combustion was oxygen limited due to the breached barrier. When flame retardants are present, they slow or stop the fire so there is little to no smoke released.
  • There was no statistical difference in smoke toxicity between the flame retardant and non-flame retardant foam fires.
  • The study showed no difference between the flame retarded foam and non-flame retarded foam when it came to the release of chlorinated dioxins and furans.

These and other related findings should help address concerns from fire fighters about the impact of flame retardants on smoke toxicity. This study also shows that flame retardants can play an important role in slowing and preventing the spread of fire, and that’s a finding that should be comforting to all of us.

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