As an interior designer, I’ve been aware of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in buildings – both my projects and my home – since learning about California Technical Bulletin 117 in school. However, it wasn’t until I started focusing on non-toxic materials for healthy buildings that I discovered the dangerous (and insidious!) nature of BFRs.
It’s been with excitement and relief that I’ve watched the growing concern about BRFs. You’ve probably noticed as well: a recent investigative report by the Chicago Tribune exposes how the chemical industry has played the public, using many of the same tactics as Big Tobacco employed during their heyday. BFRs are getting a lot of press, especially here in California where Governor Jerry Brown is in support of revamping TB117, and legislation is on the floor to remove flame retardants in some building insulation (Assembly Bill 127). In both cases, regulations are being rewritten to allow the design team to decide the best method of fire safety.
The most common flame retardant compounds, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) are similar in molecular structure to Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs), Polychlorinated Diphenyls (PCBs), Dioxins, and Furans – all of which are known human toxicants, regardless of the variation or latest proprietary molecule design. These chemicals are widely used in the U.S. and can be found in electronics, building insulation, polyurethane foam (the norm for upholstery cushions), and wire and cable.
As I learned of the health implications and realized my role in specifying these chemicals into projects I was trying to make healthier, I searched for ways to avoid using them. I first found hope in a technicality: the California standards TB117 and TB133 have similar requirements, but TB133 is voluntary. It seemed a no-brainer to me – why would any client willingly spend the extra money and effort it takes to meet TB133 if they didn’t have to? But even after convincing my clients it was unnecessary; I couldn’t always convince their insurance lawyers or the local fire marshal. At least it made me feel less guilty, since I had made every effort to increase awareness by placing the facts on the table:
- Flame retardants are known toxicants (or lack adequate data to prove otherwise).
- The actual benefit of flame retardants towards fire safety has yet to be proven.
- The reference test used by the fire code, ASTM E 84 (Steiner Tunnel Test), has been shown to be inadequate in predicting the flame spread for foam plastics.
In order to meet the codes, a foam plastic cushion (like the one inside the couch I’m specifying for my client or the chair you’re sitting in now) may contain 5% (by weight!) of fire retardant chemicals just to pass the Steiner Tunnel Test. That equates to one to two pounds of unbound long-chain molecules (read: persistent and able to move up the food chain). These molecules migrate out of the foam onto the floor, and are now ubiquitous in common household dust. We’re contaminated when we inadvertently eat these chemicals clinging to our hands. Who among us hasn’t eaten lunch at their keyboard, or after stroking our pets (dust clinging to their fur) without first washing their hands? Everyone has seen how toddlers’ hands are everywhere including their mouths, which is probably why (in addition to the bio-accumulative effect) American children, are among those with the highest body burden of these toxics (Californians in general have the worldwide highest levels, because of TB117).
Our only recourse now is to wash hands frequently (office workers who washed more than three times per day had BFR chemical blood levels significantly lower than their colleagues who washed less often). Until these chemicals are phased out of use and enough time has passed (decades) so they are no longer in our dust, here are some other actions concerned citizens can take:
- Get informed and begin educating your peers.
- Request alternatives in your building design
- Sign the code-change resolution, proposed by Safer Insulation Solutions (a project of Green Science Policy Institute, directed by Arlene Blum, PhD and chemistry scholar at the University of California, Berkeley)
Perkins+Will is a proponent of the resolution, but we urge public participation – individual signatures will add weight to the effort to pass AB 127 in California as well as support the efforts to update the International Residential Building Code.
Suzanne’s new book EcoSoul: Save the Planet and Yourself by ReThinking your Everyday Habits is available for purchase here.