Monday, October 13, 2008

Fire Retardants and Indoor Environmental Quality

Today I attended an interesting lecture by Dr. Arlene Blum, the Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute, a new think tank that brings together scientists to advocate for green public policy and serve as a credible counterforce to industry lobbyists. She was also the first woman to attempt Everest, as described in her book Breaking Trail: A Climber’s Life. The lecture was held at the Tsinghua University Department of Building Sciences.

Dr. Blum’s lecture focused on a topic I hadn’t thought about much: the effect of fire retardants on building indoor environmental quality (IEQ).

Fire Retardants and IEQ
Fire retardant (FR) chemicals are typically halogenated chemicals that contain bromine or chlorine, are added to many products in order to improve fire safety. Halogenated FR chemicals are most commonly used in electronics, building insulation, and furniture, and are therefore of great importance to professionals thinking about the built environment.

The problem with these halogenated FR chemicals is that they are extremely toxic. These chemicals have been proven to cause significant health problems in wild animals and are likely to cause significant health problems in humans, particularly in young and newborn children. Despite these potentially dangerous side effects, the use of FR chemicals has proliferated in recent years as more and more governments are beginning to require fire retardants as a fire safety measure, particularly in California thanks to stringent fire codes.

Woods Center at Stanford
The scary thing is these halogenated FR chemicals are even being found in green buildings. For example, the new Jerry Yang & Akiko Yamazaki Environment & Energy Building at Stanford University "sets sustainability standards for Stanford" and is built to LEED Platinum standards, although not certified by the USGBC. However, when Dr. Blum took samples from the building, she found that both the insulation and the furniture had extremely high levels of bromide. Needless to say, this did not make the Stanford people very happy.

The Problem- Short-Sighted Public Policy Encourages Use of Toxic Fire Retardants
Now, this is not necessarily Stanford's fault. I just use the example to illustrate the unintended consequences of California's laws that require the use of FR chemicals in insulation and furniture. Currently, no non-toxic substitutes exist for such chemicals, and if Stanford wants to buy a chair, it must buy the chair coated in a toxic FR chemical.

Clearly, the intent of such laws is noble: to promote fire safety. However, Dr Blum makes the point that the data cannot show that these FR chemicals even contribute to fire safety. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the data is not complete enough to show that FR chemicals have had any impact on fire deaths in the US. What is clear though is that these chemicals are toxic.

So how can we eliminate the dangerous chemicals while also preventing fires? Dr Blum suggests we focus on the root causes of fires: primarily candles and cigarettes. Fire-safe candles (fat base, shorter wicks) have become the standard in America, and self-extinguishing cigarettes have also become the norm. Both of these steps help reduce fire deaths and don't rely on the introduction of hazardous chemicals into the built environment.

The US Green Building Council Role
I believe the US Green Building Council should take a strong role in advocating for good public policy on fire retardant chemicals. The USGBC has made significant progress in spreading awareness on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the associated negative health affects, which has resulted in many manufacturers removing VOCs from their products. The USGBC should consider incorporating credits into LEED that reward builders who eliminate halogenated FR chemicals from their buildings. Ideally, this will help push manufacturers of furniture and insulation, as well as public policy makers, in the right direction on balancing fire risk with chemical toxicity risk.

The USGBC's advocacy is also incredibly important because the chemical companies spend lots of money to push legislators toward mandating these toxic chemicals. A strong counter lobbying force needs to put forward by green organizations in order to keep these toxic chemicals out of homes and offices.

The China Connection
The question of how to deal with fire retardant chemicals will be an important one for China, particularly as they continue to scale their chemicals industry and improve their building codes. Toxic fire retardants are not currently widely used in China, but the chemicals industry is hoping for rapid growth.

I hope rather than mandating the use of these toxic chemicals, the Chinese government will focus on the root causes of fires. Given that China has 350 million+ cigarette smokers, it is critical that the Chinese cigarette industry moves to fire safe cigarettes. This will keep the Chinese safe both from fires and also toxic chemicals.

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