OP-ED: Flame Retardants Serve An Essential Role In Foam Insulation

Tom Wood Volkswagon, PIN# CF4157The following article by Jared Blum serves as a more extensive counterpoint to a piece posted on FacilityBlog on September 26, 2013.

Building performance is a top priority for consumers, architects, and contractors, and foam insulation plays a very important role in improving energy efficiency and controlling the indoor environment. In order to meet critical fire safety standards and codes, manufacturers of foam insulation add flame retardants to their products. However, an article on FacilityBlog, “Study Finds Health And Environmental Risk In Building Insulation,” failed to convey the valuable and important role that flame retardants serve in foam insulation.

During a fire, every second counts and flame retardants in foam insulation are an important line of defense when it comes to fire safety. They help protect building occupants and workers from fire-related death and injury by preventing some fires and slowing down the progress of others. In fact, a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Materials Flammability Group found that products treated with flame retardants provide extra, valuable time to escape a building compared to foam insulation products not treated with flame retardants.

Since the late 1970s, which is around the time that flame retardants came into more common use, civilian fire deaths decreased significantly. According to the National Fire Protection Association, between 1977 and 2011, civilian fire deaths declined from 7,395 to 3,005, respectively. While a variety of factors contributed to this decline, including an increase in the use of sprinklers and fire alarms, it stands to reason that insulation meeting strict fire performance requirements probably helped a good bit, too.

The existing building codes that govern fire safety are based on years of careful analysis, extensive testing, and a robust and inclusive public development process. This process draws on a wide array of expertise, including that of fire scientists, the fire services, fire testing laboratories, code officials and other experts.

Despite this, some advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations have been advocating for building code changes that would lower fire performance standards by allowing the use of foam insulation that has not been treated with flame retardants. These groups claim that potential health hazards associated with flame retardants are greater than their fire safety benefits. However, the International Code Council (ICC), the leading national organization that develops model building performance codes, twice rejected the two code change proposals these groups put forth this year, recognizing the importance of using flame retardants in foam insulation.

Any assessment of potential health risks associated with the use of flame retardants in foam insulation must be based on scientific research that takes into account hazard and exposure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which performs risk assessments to evaluate chemical safety, is undertaking assessments of 20 substances that are used as flame retardants in a variety of products, including TCPP, which is used in polyurethane and polyisocyanurate foam insulation. In addition, the EPA’s Design for the Environment program is partnering with stakeholders to evaluate flame retardant alternatives to HBCD in polystyrene foam insulation for buildings, including new polymeric products.

Like many other building products – from electrical wires to structural and decorative wood products to paint – foam insulation uses flame retardants to protect people and property from the hazards of fire.

Flame retardants used in foam insulation meet current regulations and their history of safe use is backed up with scientific research. Manufacturers are committed to product safety and the effectiveness of flame retardants, and support research and development efforts to continually advance and improve these materials.

\Blum is president of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association (PIMA). PIMA is a member of the Energy Efficient Foam Coalition (EEFC). To learn more about the EEFC, please visit www.foaminsulationcoalition.org.


  1. I find the argument that insulation meeting strict fire performance requirements has been a factor in the reduced number of fire deaths very interesting. Imagine how insulation meeting the strictest fire performance requirements – such as non-combustible insulation – could bring down the numbers even further.

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