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An Environmental Catch-22: Fire Safety Chemicals in Insulation Pose Risks

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Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown directed state agencies to reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions through a green building action plan to “shrink the state’s environmental footprint.” The order also mandated using “environmentally preferable products that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing goods that serve the same purpose.”

Just seven months later, a study in Building Research and Information revealed that plastic foam insulation used to increase energy efficiency in buildings may pose an unnecessary risk to health and the environment. Manufacturers add potentially harmful fire-retardant chemicals to insulation to pass a flammability test required in building codes. But the test isn’t reliable for foam plastic insulation, argued fire scientist Vytenis Babrauskas and his colleagues. And the codes’ requirement for a thermal barrier – a thick wallboard that separates the insulation from a room’s interior – already makes insulation fire-safe without the need for flame retardants.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) first learned about this apparent environmental Catch-22 when she had to replace the insulation in her home. A legislator known for her environmental record, Skinner introduced a bill in January calling on state officials to revisit building standards to ensure fire safety without relying on harmful chemicals. On Monday, the bill, AB 127, passed the Senate Business Professions and Economic Development Committee, and could reach the Senate floor sometime in August.

Potential for harm
The main plastic insulation flame retardants — HBCD or HBCDD, for hexabromocyclododecane, and TCPP, for tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate – aren’t chemically bound to the insulation, so they can escape into the environment. Although researchers have shown that flame retardants in furniture foam can seep from foam into the air and settle in dust, it’s not clear how HBCD and TCPP wind up in indoor air and dust. Possible routes of dispersal include points of manufacture, use and disposal.

Both compounds, classified as high-volume chemicals by the Environmental Protection Agency (with U.S. import/production volumes between 20 million and 100 million pounds), occur in soil, sewage sludge and aquatic sediments and have been found in bivalves, fish, birds and other wildlife.

In keeping with its profile as a fat-loving, bioaccumulating toxic chemical, HBCD appears in higher levels in predators like porpoises and falcons. It’s also been found in human fat tissue, blood and breast milk. Testing the possibility that the chemicals could enter our bodies through food, researchers found HBCD in 42 percent of foods purchased in Dallas grocery stores. Canned sardines and smoked turkey sausages had the highest levels, in keeping with other studies suggesting that fatty foods could be an important exposure pathway.

Studies in animals indicate that HBCD disrupts hormone function and interferes with the developing nervous system. Less is known about TCPP, though it’s also been detected in human breast milk and causes developmental and neurological defects in animal studies.

Fire-safe buildings without chemicals
Building standards regulating foam insulation date back to the 1960s, and required that products pass the “Steiner Tunnel” test, which measures flame spread from the bottom of a tunnel to its ceiling, outfitted with insulation. In the 1970s, the thermal barrier requirement was added to protect exposed insulation because, Babrauskas and his coauthors assert in their recent study, insulation proved highly flammable even after passing the Steiner test. Using flame retardants when a thermal barrier is present, the authors concluded, does not add a fire safety benefit.

AB 127 calls on the State Fire Marshall to review California’s flammability standards for building insulation and work with government officials to ensure fire safety “while giving full consideration to the long-term human and ecological health impacts associated with chemical flame retardants.”

After Skinner made her case before the state Senate committee on Monday, several witnesses spoke in support of the bill, including Justin Malan of the U.S. Green Building Council California. Malan argued that although the builders, architects, planners and engineers he represents strongly support energy efficiency, they know that sometimes building materials need careful review. “Let’s not make the same costly, and lethal, mistakes we made with asbestos,” he said.

Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a chemist who has long sounded the alarm about the potential hazards of flame retardants, urged the committee to follow the lead of Governor Brown, who directed regulators to update the state’s furniture flammability standards to increase fire safety without using potentially toxic chemicals.

Existing building standards require 15 minutes to flashover, when the fire turns from flame to conflagration as nearby combustibles ignite. By the time a fire hits the treated plastic foam insulation inside the wall, Blum said, “all the flame retardants do is make the fire more toxic, produce dioxins, which harm the health of first responders.”

Lobbying against public health?
Twelve public interest and business groups followed Malone and Blum in support of AB 127. Leading the opposition to the bill was Joe Lang, representing the chemical industry’s main trade group, the American Chemistry Council.

Lang, a veteran Sacramento lobbyist who once represented tobacco giant Philip Morris, now heads the top-grossing lobbying firm in Sacramento. His firm received more than $1 million from chemical industry interests over five years to help defeat five bills to regulate flame retardants added to consumer products. In the first quarter of this year, Lang and his associates have earned 40,000 from the American Chemistry Council, state records show.

Claiming most of the opposition’s allotted time, Lang did not argue the merits of reviewing the state’s building code but lectured the committee on the state’s Green Chemistry Initiative (enacted in 2008 but plagued by budgetary problems and yet to see full implementation), which aims to identify chemical hazards and safer alternatives. He argued that AB 127 subverted the state’s green chemistry policy by asking for a separate process, not based on science, that evaluates chemical hazards one by one.

Lang also argued that most of the evidence cited to show the risks of flame retardants studied chemicals that aren’t used in foam insulation. Then he referred to a European Union risk assessment for TCPP that failed to find evidence of risk to consumers or the environment, based on exposure models, though it did show harm to workers in plants where the chemicals are made. All of the studies that AB 127 supporters point to as support for the toxicity of flame retardants don’t apply in this case, Lang said. “They’re creating a hysteria. They’re creating a sense that fire retardants used in building insulation are in fact dangerous. That’s not the case.”

EU risk assessments of another flame retardant, known as Deca, also found no significant risks to health and the environment using their exposure models. Although the EU banned Deca in 2002, the subsequent favorable risk assessment helped win a reprieve, allowing manufacturers to continue using Deca in electronics and electrical equipment. But the EU banned the chemical for good in 2008 after the European Parliament challenged the assessment, citing health and environmental concerns. (In 2009, the EPA brokered a deal with the two U.S. Deca manufacturers to phase out the chemical “to protect human health and the environment.”)

Lang didn’t mention any risk assessment studies for HBCD. But last month, the U.N. Environment Programme’s Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants voted to add HBCD to its list of globally banned chemicals.

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Category: Biology, Chemistry, Energy, Environment

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About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Don Peek

    Good job Liza!

  • Pingback: An Environmental Catch-22: Fire Safety Chemicals in Insulation Pose Risks – KQED (blog) | CareerEco

  • USGBC California

    Nice article.

    We would like to note the distinction between
    “USGBC” and “USGBC California.” USGBC California is the sponsor of AB127 and the voice of the green building movement on California state issues. USGBC advocacy focuses on national issues like institutionalizing sustainable practices throughout the federal government.

    No one said the path to a sustainable future was easy. We have to be mindful of a few things at a time paying attention to material safety, health impacts, life cycle as well as product performance. Asbestos works great in many applications; unfortunately it is not kind to humans. Flame retardants are highly problematic chemical compounds that are simply not needed as an additive to building insulation, and, ironically, make matters much worse in a fire through the production of toxic smoke. As a volunteer-driven organization of green building professionals, we will be working with well-meaning contracting firms and responsible manufacturers to provide better,
    safer non-toxic insulation alternatives for their customers. We are naturally very strong supporters of energy efficiency and bettering building performance, but at the same time, we must all recognize the importance of material health impacts upon building occupants, installers and emergency responders and want to steer a prudent path towards a visionof a healthy and sustainable future.

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  • Thiago

    Our foam insulation in Toronto I believe makes use of most of these same materials. I think it’s unfortunate, but a cost of safety, at least until an alternative is found.

  • Lily

    What about reflective insulation? We use that in our home in addition to regular insulation and we have been very happy with it.

  • Pingback: KQED Science: An environmental catch-22: fire safety chemicals in insulation pose risks

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