Flame Retardants Are Not All Created Equal  

The state of Maine recently banned the use of all flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture (see our post here), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has recently initiated the rulemaking process to ban a class of flame retardant chemicals called organohalogens from four classes of consumer products. These moves are heralded as a victory by advocacy groups, while being criticized by industry and trade groups. Here we discuss what exactly flame retardant chemicals are, why they are used in some classes of consumer products, and why blanket bans on such a diverse group of chemicals, such as the recent ban passed in Maine, is a bad idea when trying to protect consumers.

(i) What are flame retardant chemicals?

Flame retardants encompass a broad diversity of substances; this means there are many types of flame retardants with vastly different properties. This diversity is necessary to match the wide variety of consumer products they aim to protect from burning when ignited; different products need different chemistries to prevent fire. In fact, many of these flame retardant chemicals have been specifically engineered by chemical manufacturers for properties to suit different types and classes of consumer products from fabrics to laptops.

(ii) Why are flame retardants added to consumer products?

Flame retardants are added to many common products to add a layer of fire protection, reducing the chance of a fire starting, delaying the spread of a fire once it starts, and reducing the overall intensity of fires. This protects people and property and helps reduce the risks to all consumers. Since their introduction, homes, automobiles, offices and schools and the people in them are safer.

(iii) Why is there a push to ban flame retardant chemicals?

One specific class of flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), and the broader class of organohalogens it belongs to, have been detected in polar bears and in the environment far from where consumers use them, and there are some indications of potential neurotoxic effects in humans. However, these chemicals are a small subset of flame retardants, most of which do not have evidence of adverse effects on human health. Flame retardants, like all chemicals, are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure they are safe for their intended use. In their review, the U.S. EPA has identified ~50 flame retardants that ‘are unlikely to pose a risk to human health’, and has identified three ‘problem formulation chemicals’ to further evaluate safety.[1] Blanket bans on flame retardants, such as the one recently passed in Maine, bans all of these substances, regardless of their potential impact on human health and the environment, and eliminates the fire protection benefits these substances provide. Instead, policies such as bans should be based on the evidence, and selectively target unsafe fire retardants to balance chemical safety with fire safety and ultimately be protecting consumers. 

[1] U.S. EPA Fact Sheet: Assessing Risks from Flame Retardants. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/fact-sheet-assessing-risks-flame-retardants