Alternatives: Are FRs Necessary?
A critical approach to chemicals in products in general and plastics in particular is to ask: Is it necessary? For example, is a flame retardant in nap mats even necessary? Driven by government regulations and industry standards, manufacturers now consume over 4 billion pounds of FRs globally each year. Plastics are by far and away the largest end use, consuming roughly 2/3rd of all FRs. The dominant end uses for FRs are electronics, construction materials, transportation components, fabrics/apparel, and miscellaneous other products like paints and paper products. Note that FRs can be found in an array of miscellaneous products like Mardi Gras beads and children’s car seats—see healthystuff.org.
A major question emerging with FRs in general is: are they effective? Flame retardancy standards are changing as more research comes to bear on the effectiveness of FRs—witness California TB 117-2013, which revised an earlier standard, making FR-free products in upholstered furniture much more viable.
No FRs in Furniture & Furnishings
“I’ll take that chair without FRs, thank you.” With the release of the new California standard, hospitals across the country announced their preference for upholstered furniture without FRs, including: Kaiser Permanente, followed by Advocate Health Care, Beaumont Health System, Hackensack University Medical Center, and University Hospitals. Manufacturers are following the changing standards and market demand for FR-free furniture/furnishing products. The NGO, Center for Environmental Health tracks FR-free furniture/furnishings including: children’s nap mats, mattresses, baby changing pads, and residential and commercial furniture. The architectural firm, Perkins+Will, tracks FR-free products that meet another California standard, TB 133. And a recent article in The Guardian detailed market movement in the commercial sector where the likes of Haworth, Herman Miller, and Steelcase are all responding to market demand.
The market trajectory in furniture and furnishings is clearly away from FRs in foam and fabrics to products that are inherently flame resistant. Naturepedic, for example, manufactures changing pads, and baby and adult mattresses without any FRs. Beware that companies may eliminate FRs in the foam while keeping the FRs in the fabric.
Other FR-free Options: Building Insulation and Textiles
Perkins+Will in their white paper “Strategies for avoiding flame retardants in the built environment,” detail FRs in building products and the availability of alternatives. Two additional end uses beyond furniture for which FR-free alternatives are available include building insulation and textiles. A wide range of alternative materials without FRs are available to polystyrene and polyurethane/polyisocyanurate in insulation foam. Similarly a wide array of alternative materials and designs of fabrics can be used to avoid the need for FRs, and gain inherent flame resistance in the fabric without FRs.