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Smoke Signals: Reading the Signs

It’s a good idea to prevent materials from igniting, but there are better ways to do it than by using halogenated flame retardants.

Chemical fire retardants are supposed to keep fire fighters and building occupants safer by preventing furniture, fabrics or electronics from igniting. Unfortunately, the chemicals most commonly used as flame retardants may actually harm firefighters by making fires more toxic while adding very little benefit to their firefighting tool kit. They offer only a few additional seconds before combustion would otherwise begin.

Halogenated flame retardants added to fabric, to foam used in furniture, to carpets, and to electronic equipment create more smoke and soot when these materials smolder or burn than do materials without these flame retardants. And the smoke is deadly. First, inhalation can be deeply damaging to lungs. Fire fighters wear protective gear, but gear may not always function as intended. Second, intense smoke can be disorienting and disabling. Many firefighters lost their lives in their valiant efforts to protect others, because they were unable to reach safety when surrounded by dense smoke and soot.

Smoke Can Carry Toxic Chemicals

Smoke can carry toxic chemicals, including carbon monoxide, a deadly gas, and dioxins and furans, produced when chlorinated or brominated flame retardants burn. Dioxins and furans are some of the most toxic substances known, and have been associated with certain cancers, including soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, adult-onset leukemia, multiple myeloma, breast cancer, bladder cancer and stomach cancer. These chemicals are also associated with chloracne, cardiovascular disease, diabetes II, thyroid dysfunction and immune suppression.

Firefighters have a higher incidence of heart disease, lung disease, and cancer compared to other workers. Getting chlorinated and brominated flame retardants out of their working environment can help reduce their chances of becoming ill.

What works

Stronger electrical codes and building and fire codes, as well as increased use of smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and self-extinguishing cigarettes all help prevent fires. These measures plus an overall decrease in cigarette smoking in the U.S. have helped reduce fire deaths by 60% since 1980.

Flammability standards that require the use of flame retardants to prevent combustion don’t work. Although California has an open flame standard, which has triggered the high use of chemical flame retardants, it does not result in fewer California fire deaths when compared with other states.

Firefighting will be safer when firefighters are not exposed to harsh, unnecessary chemical flame retardants. It’s time we protect those who put their lives on the line to protect ours.