The National Fire Protection Association recently estimated that fire departments responded to 366,600 home structure fires per year between 2007 and 2011. Those fires caused an annual average of 2,570 deaths, 13,210 injuries, and $7.2 billion in direct property damage.

Installing polystyrene panels, doors, and insulation treated with a fire retardant is one way builders make house exteriors a bit more fire resistant. But some fire retardants, or FRs, are under regulatory scrutiny for their risk to human health.

In the spring, the EPA began assessing 20 flame retardant chemicals, including Hexabromocyclododecane, better known as HBCD, which has been the only flame retardant compatible with the expanded polystyrene polymerization process and approved by regulatory agencies.

HBCD is one of four FRs getting full health risk assessments by EPA. REACH, the European Community’s regulations on chemicals, already mandated HBCD’s phase out by August 2015.

While EPA hasn't set a phase-out date, North American manufacturers are gearing up for that eventuality. One company, the  Building Solutions division of Dow Chemical, developed a polymeric RF technology that's a suitable substitute to HBCD for use in expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Lorraine Ross, speaking on behalf of the EPS Industry Alliance and the Extruded Polystyrene Foam Insulation Association, explains that the new FR, which Dow started developing in 2005, is safer than HBCD because, being polymer-based, its large, bulky molecules are not bioavailable, meaning they are not readily absorbed by the body.

Dow is licensing the technology to three leading FR suppliers: Chemtura, ICL, and Albemarle. ICL’s Industrial Products (IP) division has retrofitted a plant in the Netherlands to make the flame retardant and is building a plant in Israel for that purpose, says Ilan Elkan, IP’s vice president-flame retardants.

Chemtura’s Great Lakes Solutions division produces a flame retardant using Dow’s technology in its plant in Arkansas. In August, one of Chemtura’s customers, EPS resin maker Flint Hills Resources, became the first EPS resin manufacturer in North America to switch to the new FR additive.

Same Performance and Price

Marshall Moore, Chemtura’s director of technology, marketing and advocacy, says a retardant produced with Dow’s technology has the same functionality and performance ratings as HBCD. (It meets 2012 International Residential Code requirements, says Ross). Plus, Francis Murphy, Flint Hill’s managing director of olefins and polymers, says the new FR technology hasn’t made EPS products more expensive for end users.

ICL is buoyed by an increasing global appetite for energy-efficient insulation. “The more insulation that’s used, the more flame retardant will be needed,” Elkan says. — John Caulfield