Is there a benefit to having flame retardants in our products?

Flame retardants appear nearly everywhere, yet research and fire safety experts point to their limited effectiveness in protecting us from fires.

We interviewed Joseph Allen, Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment, to better understand why flame retardant chemicals are non-essential to our safety. 

According to Allen, flame retardants are not as effective as we may think in preventing fires. "They are designed to slow the ignition of a material, but once a fire starts, they don't do much to prevent it from spreading," he says.

Furthermore, flame retardants can pose health risks to humans and the environment. "Many flame retardants are toxic and can accumulate in our bodies and the environment, leading to adverse health effects," Allen explains. "They can also make recycling and disposal of materials more difficult and expensive."

Despite these risks, flame retardants are still widely used in many products due to regulations that require them. However, there are alternatives to flame retardants that are safer and more effective in preventing fires.

One such alternative is the use of naturally fire-resistant materials, such as wool and certain types of wood. Another alternative is the use of fire barriers, which can be made from materials like fiberglass or intumescent coatings that expand when exposed to heat and form a barrier against flames.

In addition to these alternatives, Allen suggests that the best way to prevent fires is to focus on fire prevention and building design. "We should be designing buildings that are more fire-resistant and have better fire suppression systems," he says. "We should also be focusing on fire prevention strategies, such as better education and training for the public and more strict enforcement of fire codes."

It's important to note that flame retardants are not completely useless. They can provide some protection against fires, particularly in situations where there is a high risk of ignition, such as in electronics. However, their overall effectiveness is limited, and they come with significant health and environmental risks.

While flame retardants may appear nearly everywhere, their effectiveness in protecting us from fires is limited. There are alternatives that are safer and more effective, and a focus on fire prevention and building design is the best way to ensure our safety. By using safer and more effective alternatives to flame retardants, we can protect ourselves and the environment from the negative effects of these chemicals.

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

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