Flame Retardants, Polyurethane Foam and Flashover

The Risks

There’s a lot of discussion over health concerns associated with chemical flame retardants, particularly those found in mattresses and furniture. One of the most common classes of flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which was widely used for decades before the environmental community focused attention on it, and pressured manufacturers to stop, has been linked to an unsettling smorgasbord of issues including thyroid disruption, developmental issues in children, memory and cognitive problems, lower IQ and reduced fertility.

Studies of other flame retardants are seeing links to cancer. Groups representing firefighters in various states are raising concerns about the toxicity of flame retardants, arguing they increase the risks for cancer in first responders while doing little to retard fires.

So with these types of risks, why in the world are chemical flame retardants so prevalent?

The question lies less with the flame retardants themselves and more with the polyurethane foam in the furniture and mattresses.

Then vs. Now

Travel in time to a living room in 1940s America. The cushioning materials in the furniture include natural materials ranging from cotton, excelsior (wood shavings), down and horse hair.

Image from a magazine ad from 1955 - things were a little bit different

Image from a magazine ad from 1955 – things were a little bit different

Now today. Couches, chairs, crib mattresses, changing pads, and adult mattresses (including memory foam ones), are often filled with polyurethane foam, an intensely flammable material.

Flame retardants are used in an attempt to offset the stored energy in polyurethane foam, although their effectiveness is questionable, as you’ll see

Flashover

A “flashover” is the point in a house fire when an entire room self-ignites as a result of the heat caused by a fire.

Watch the eye-opening video above made by the National Institute of Standards and Testing. A room furnished with the typical synthetic fabrics and polyurethane foam cushioning of today reaches flashover in an astonishing three minutes and forty seconds!  Comparatively, a room furnished with items as would be found in a 1950s or so house takes almost a half hour.

The vintage materials burn, but without the rapid heat release of the polyurethane foam, which has been called “solid gasoline” by the National Association of State Fire Marshals. In fact, burning untreated polyurethane foam can reach temperatures of 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit in only minutes! That incredible heat release leads to an incredibly rapid flashover.

While other materials in the room contributed, the immense impact of polyurethane foam can’t be overstated.

Where There Is Smoke

You probably also notice the billowing black smoke from the fire. As mentioned earlier, firefighters have become increasingly concerned about the inhalation of carcinogenic flame retardants found in the smoke and increased cancer rates in firefighters.

Beyond the risk of flame retardants, though, is the risk of the deadly and debilitating hydrogen cyanide gas released from burning polyurethane foam. Inhaled hydrogen cyanide quickly leads to confusion, unconsciousness and death. Hydrogen cyanide is the gas used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack and was implicated in the deadly concert fire in Rhode Island in 2003.

Highly Flammable Materials Require Flame Retardant Chemicals

When looking at the materials in your next mattress for you or your children, consider not only the materials in the mattress, but the flame retardant chemicals those materials demand. When buying a mattress, remember the 3 minute 40 second marker on the video.

Naturepedic Mattresses Contain No Flame Retardant Chemicals

Naturepedic organic mattresses do not require flame retardant chemicals to pass government flammability standards. We begin by using less flammable materials in the first place. Simply put: polyurethane foam requires chemical flame retardants, and we never use polyurethane foam.

 

 

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