What are flame retardants?
Flame retardants are chemicals, which are added to manufactured materials, that inhibit or delay the spread of a fire. They do so in different ways based on their chemistry and are therefore suited to application in different products.
The term ‘flame retardant’ describes a function rather than a chemical class. In fact, a wide range of different chemicals act as flame retardants, often applied in combination. Given the different and peculiar areas of application, it is important to underline that flame retardants are not readily substitutable, as a combination of chemicals might not effectively match the qualities and performance of other materials.
As products continue to evolve and improve, from lighter and faster computers to smart buildings or alternative fuelled transportation modes, fire safety standards are protecting the lives and properties of consumers. Flame retardants are one of the most efficient and effective ways to comply with fire safety standards.
Why do we use flame retardants?
While chemistries can vary depending on the application and the materials used, flame retardants are effective to reduce the flammability of products and improve safety of people in the event of a fire.
Flame retardants can be used in products made from plastics, textiles, foams or wood, to delay ignition, slow down the combustion process, or even make the material self-extinguishing. Therefore, they play a crucial role in fire protection. They not only reduce the risk of a fire starting, but also the risk of the fire spreading, leaving more time for people to escape.
Studies and tests carried out in Europe and in the United States confirm that flame-retarded materials can provide valuable escape time, as they slow down the spread of a fire. For example, a series of tests performed on furniture in the United States showed a longer ignition time in flame-retarded upholstery than in those without flame retardants.
With the increased presence of flammable materials in our homes, transportation modes and products in our daily lives, the use of flame retardants makes sure that people have a prolonged evacuation time and therefore they ensure that fewer people are killed or injured in fires.
History of flame retardants
First fire resistant treatment
In 360 BCE, a treatise on fortifications mentions the first fire resistant treatment. Timber that was used to build fortifications was treated with vinegar to make it fire resistant.
Romans used potassium alum for fire resistance
Historical evidence from the Siege of Athens and Piraeus (87-86 BCE) shows that the siege towers used by Romans during the battle were impregnated with potassium alum (KAl(SO4)2) to protect them from fire.
First registered flame retardant
In 1735, the English patent no. 551 was granted to Obadiah Wyld for perfecting a mixture of alum, borax and ferrous sulphate used to treat wood, paper and textile for improving their fire resistance. This was the first ‘registered’ flame retardant in history.
Fire in theatres lead to new flame retardants
Following several fires in French theatres, King Louis XVIII commissioned Joseph Guy-Lussac to find solutions to protect fabrics (hemp and linen textiles) used in theatres. Guy-Lussac discovered a mixture of ammonium salts of phosphoric, sulphuric and hydrochloric acid to fireproof the fabrics. He was the first to observe the synergistic effects of ammonium phosphate and ammonium sulphate.
The invention of a fire retardant coating
Sir William Henry Perkin invented a ‘fabric mordent’ – a permanent coating, chemically fixed and wash resistant, consisting of ammonium salts in combination with stannate and tungstate salts.
Fire-resistant fabrics used by US Air Force
The US Air Force’s Army Quartermaster Corps was in need for flame resistant clothing. This rapidly increased research on fire-resistant fabrics. For the first time, the properties of chlorinated paraffin combined with antimony trioxide on nylon fibres were discovered.
Flame retardant chemicals
1800s and 1900s discoveries laid the foundation of modern flame retardants. Since 1960s industry has been continuously working on improving both the sustainability and the performance of its products.
Key Facts & Figures
Flame retardants are a single class of chemicals
Flame retardants do not work
Plastics with flame retardants cannot be recycled
Flame retardants release toxins in a fire
Halogenated flame retardants are slowly being phased out
All flame retardants are hazardous
There are over 140 different flame retardants.
Chemical substances derived from 7 different families are used as flame retardants
This is the time it takes in minutes for flashovers to occur without flame retardants.