What Is A Flame Retardant? | Chemical Safety Facts

Flame Retardants

Updated August 24, 2021

Flame retardants refer to a variety of substances that are added to combustible materials to prevent fires from starting or to slow the spread of fire and provide additional escape time.

The term “flame retardant” refers to a function, not a family of chemicals. A variety of different chemistries, with different properties and molecular structures, act as flame retardants, and these chemicals are often combined for effectiveness.

Uses & Benefits

When added to different products and materials, ranging from electronic devices to furniture, flame retardants can help prevent fires from starting or limit their spread.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration1 and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)2, in 2019 an estimated 1.3 million fires were reported in the United States, causing 3,700 civilian fire deaths, 16,600 civilian injuries and $14.8 billion in property damage. The use of flame retardants is especially important today, as the large volume of electrical and electronic equipment in today’s buildings, coupled with a larger volume of combustible materials, can increase the potential for fire hazards

Flame retardants provide consumers with a critical layer of fire protection and can be vital to reducing the risks associated with fire. Today, flame retardants are typically used in four major areas: electronics, building and construction materials, furnishings and transportation.

Electronics and Electrical Devices

Flame retardants can enable modern electronic equipment, like televisions and computers, to meet fire safety standards and can be vital to the safety of hundreds of these products.

Building and Construction Materials

Flame retardants used in a variety of building and construction materials in homes, offices and public buildings, including schools and hospitals, can provide increased fire safety protection.

Furnishings

The addition of flame retardants to the material fillings and fibers used in furnishings helps provide individuals with an extra layer of fire protection and can increase critical escape time in case of a fire.

Transportation

From airplanes to cars to trains, flame retardants can play a key role in protecting travelers from the devastation of fire. After the July 2013 Asiana Airline crash in San Francisco, for example, experts credited flame retardant materials with helping passengers survive the crash. As former FAA Director Steven Wallace told the New York Times, “Flame retardant materials inside the plane, including foil wrapping under the seats, most likely helped protect many passengers.”

Safety Information

Chemistry is rooted in innovation, and the next generation of fire-safety products is in various stages of development. Like other chemicals, flame retardants currently in use and new fire-safety chemicals are tested by the manufacturers and are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and regulators around the globe.

EPA has authority to limit or even prohibit a chemical’s use if the agency concludes that the chemical presents or will present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment. EPA recently indicated that approximately 50 flame retardants3 that it had reviewed were unlikely to pose a risk to human health.

  • The European Union conducted a thorough evaluation of Tetrabromobisphenol-A (TBBPA), a flame retardant used in electronics. The evaluation did not identify any health effects, and consumer exposure was deemed insignificant. A 2013 Review of TBBPA by the Canadian government concluded that “The Government of Canada has also concluded that TBBPA, TBBPA bis (2-hydroxyethyl ether) and TBBPA bis (allyl ether) are not harmful to human health at current levels of exposure.”4

 

Answering Questions

What is a flame retardant?

Flame retardants refer to a variety of substances that are added to combustible materials to prevent fires from starting or to slow the spread of fire, and to help provide additional escape time. The term “flame retardant” refers to a function, not a family of chemicals. Learn more about the chemistry of flame retardants.

What is flame retardant made of?

The term “flame retardant” refers to a function, not a family of chemicals. A variety of different chemistries, with different properties and molecular structures, act as flame retardants, and these chemicals are often combined for effectiveness. Learn about these chemistries and their different uses.

Are flame retardants sate?

Flame retardants are a critical element of fire safety. Flame retardants are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other governmental agencies.  During its review of data on flame retardant chemicals, EPA identified approximately 50 flame retardant chemicals that are unlikely to pose a risk to human health. All new flame retardant chemicals for use in the U.S. must be reviewed by EPA.

The European Union conducted an extensive evaluation of Tetrabromobisphenol-A (TBBPA), a flame retardant used in electronics.5 The evaluation did not identify any human health effects, and consumer exposure was deemed insignificant. A 2013 Review of TBBPA by the Canadian government concluded that “The Government of Canada has also concluded that TBBPA, TBBPA bis (2-hydroxyethyl ether) and TBBPA bis (allyl ether) are not harmful to human health at current levels of exposure.”4

Do flame retardants actually stop the spread of fires?

Flame retardants add an important layer of protection by reducing the risk of fires or slowing their spread. Flame retardants in the plastic casings of electronic products help to preventing short circuits and overheating of components.

Upholstered furniture and mattresses are often some of the first products to ignite in a house fire. The addition of flame retardants to their fillings and fibers can provide an extra layer of fire protection and provide more escape time in case of a fire.

Sources

1U.S. Fire Administration

2National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)

3EPA Newsroom – https://bit.ly/3z8mc0f

4Government of Canada TBBPA Fact Sheet – https://bit.ly/3xYpp1b

5European Union Risk Assessment Report – https://bit.ly/2W8mvtl