Healthy Buildings

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Learn about the history, fire safety, health and environmental issues of flame retardants in building insulation. Download references for this video.

Introduction

Problem: For improved energy efficiency, the use of foam plastic insulation materials such as polystyrene, polyisocyanurate, and polyurethane is increasing in buildings, especially “green” buildings. Outdated flammability standards in building codes lead to the addition of flame retardant chemicals that are either known to be toxic or lack adequate health and environmental information. These chemicals do not increase fire safety when used below grade or behind thermal barriers.We have been working with architects, builders, policymakers and fire safety experts to create healthier buildings by finding ways to reduce the use of flame retardants in building materials when they do not improve fire safety.

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Flame retardant chemicals in building insulation

The brominated flame retardant HBCD is added to all expanded and extruded (EPS and XPS) and other polystyrene insulation. It bioaccumulates in fat, becoming more and more concentrated moving up the food chain. Marine mammals have on average 100 times greater levels of HBCD in their bodies than small aquatic organisms.

The chlorinated tris flame retardant TCPP is used in most polyurethane and polyisocyanurate insulation. HBCD and TCPP are global pollutants found in:

  • Environment and animals from the arctic to the antarctic
  • Soil, sediment, sewage sludge and landfill leachate
  • Indoor air and dust
  • Breast milk

HBCD

Graph from data in Covaci 2006.

Facts: Flame retardant chemicals in building insulation

Building insulation materialFlame retardant estimated worldwide use for insulation (year)Health and environmental concernsPolicy actions

Expanded and extruded polystyrene (EPS and XPS)

HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane)

60 million pounds

27,000 metric tons

(2012)

Endocrine disruption (thyroid hormones)

Neurodevelopmental effects

Aquatic toxicity

Bioaccumulation

Recommended for global elimination by the Stockholm Convention

European Union: 2015 phaseout

Canada: 2016 phaseout

Polyurethane and polyisocyanurate (PIR)

TCPP (tris 1-chloro-2-propyl phosphate)

70 million pounds

32,000 metric tons

(2000)

Potential carcinogenicity

Environmental persistence

Lack of data

European Union: regulated in toys under Toy Safety Directive

Under study at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Toxicology Program

Peer-reviewed paper: A case for re-evaluating building codes

Our interdisciplinary peer-reviewed paper, Flame retardants in building insulation: a case for re-evaluating building codes, explores the history, fire safety, health and environmental issues of flame retardants in building insulation. After extensive review of fire science studies, we concluded that flame retardants in building insulation do not provide a fire safety benefit for many applications.

We found that:

  • Since 1961, building codes have required foam plastic insulation materials to meet flame spread requirements as measured by the Steiner Tunnel test 
(pictured)
  • The Steiner Tunnel test does not accurately measure the flame spread of foam plastics
  • Flame retardants are added to foam plastic materials to pass the Steiner Tunnel test, but they do not provide fire safety benefits in many building applications
  • Fire safety for foam plastics is provided instead by code provisions requiring firestopping and thermal barriers

Read the full study, published in Building Research & Information
Read more on our blog

fire

Picture shows the Steiner Tunnel test, which does not accurately measure the flame spread of materials which melt and drip like foam plastics. Photo: Intertek Testing Services, Inc.

Policy

For healthier, energy-efficient buildings, codes and standards need to be updated to reduce the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals while maintaining fire safety.

Code Change

Please visit www.SaferInsulation.org to learn about our project to improve building codes for foam plastic insulation, the Safer Insulation Solution.
safer-insulation-solution

Legislation

California Assembly Bill 127 (AB127) directs the State Fire Marshal to reexamine flammability standards for building insulation. Where the standards require addition of flame retardant chemicals without an increase in fire safety new flammability standards for building insulation may be proposed. These may provide manufacturers with flexibility in meeting the standards with or without the addition of chemical flame retardants and would be consistent with maintaining overall building fire safety.

LEED

U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Program awards points for not using halogenated flame retardants in buildings under Pilot Credit 54: Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern.

CBS Bay Area ConsumerWatch: East Bay lawmaker wants toxics out of insulation

Resources

Architects and Builders

Press: Healthy Buildings

SF Chronicle: Law may cut use of flame retardants in buildings

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a law that may lead to a change in state building standards that would discourage the use of potentially hazardous flame-…

08 Oct 2013

Read more

KQED Science: An environmental catch-22: fire safety chemicals in in…

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown directed state agencies to reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions through a green building action plan to “shrink the st…

26 Jun 2013

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CBS5 ConsumerWatch: East bay lawmaker wants toxics out of insulation

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner of Berkeley is calling for a change in the state’s building code that would lessen the need for toxic chemicals in insulation. Julie Watts repo…

27 May 2013

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SFGate: S.F. ex-firefighter now battles cancer

Tony Stefani used to be a firefighter and a cancer patient. The two, he believes, had something to do with each other. Stefani was a firefighter i…

05 Feb 2013

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SFGate: Flame retardants may leach from your walls

Couches throughout the nation have become notorious for containing flame-retardant chemicals that may do more harm than good. Now, it turns out, t…

04 Feb 2013

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KQED Science: Flame retardants, redux: from toxic couches to buildin…

Speaking before a roomful of breast cancer researchers and activists in San Francisco earlier this month, Arlene Blum revealed her latest pla…

28 Nov 2012

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Scientific American blog: The environmental fallout of greener build…

Newer homes are remarkably energy tight thanks to superior insulating materials that are in wide circulation today. The energy savings can be substa…

28 Nov 2012

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Science Daily: Health and environmental risk in flame retardants in …

From Science Daily Researchers in the United States are calling for a change to the US building codes, following a study showing that the mandatory flame retardants r…

25 Nov 2012

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Washington Post: Concern grows over use of flame retardant HBCD

From the Washington Post Hexabromocyclododecane, commonly known as HBCD, is a flame retardant that is starting to give a lot of green builders headach…

04 Mar 2011

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Science & Policy Blog: Healthy Buildings

A new year, with promising new regulations

2013 was a productive year for fire safety and for environmental health! Two important regulatory changes that take effect this year have the power to reduce the use …

Read more

USGBC honors leaders, unveils new building health initiative

The US Green Building Council Northern California Chapter’s annual Super Hero Awards gala, held last Tuesday in San Francisco, honored leaders in the nonprofit, education…

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HBCD alternatives assessment: narrow focus misses large problems

Polymeric flame retardant evaluated as HBCD alternative in Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (EPA DfE) assessment presents unknown risks and po…

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World sees the light and bans HBCD. US stays in the dark.

In a historic decision, over 100 governments from around the world have agreed to list HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) for global elimination. This ban means you can’t prod…

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New study: health and environmental risk in building insulation

Foam plastic insulation materials such as polystyrene, polyurethane, and polyisocyanurate are important to increase the energy efficiency of buildings and reduce carbon f…

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Presentations: Healthy Buildings

Olly olly toxin free: Seeking fransparency for building products

Speaker: Eden Brukman, Technical Director, Health Product Declaration Collaborative Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium …

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Why are some groups pushing for new fire standards now?

Speaker: Donald Lucas, PhD, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium Date & Time…

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Fire safety without harm: New California flammability standards

Speaker: Arlene Blum, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Chemistry, UC Berkeley, Green Science Policy Institute Event Flame Retardant Dil…

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Fire safe and healthy buildings: Do we need flame retardants in insu…

Speaker: Larry Strain, Siegel & Strain Architects, USA Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium Date & Time Friday, A…

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Translating good science to good policy with AB 127

Speaker: Neela Babu, Ph.D., Science Fellow, California State Legislature Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium Date …

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Cavities in lieu of ductwork

Speaker: Steve Clark, President for North America: Aquatherm Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium Date & Time Fri…

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Flammability standards and the lock-in problem in the substitution o…

Speaker: Martin Scheringer, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Switzerland Event Cairns Science and Policy of Flame Retar…

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Halogenated flame retardants in products: Fire performance and envir…

Speaker: Vyto Babrauskas, Fire Science & Technology, Inc. Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium 2012: Do flame retardants s…

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