Some of the flame retardants added to common household products may actually increase health risks fires pose by boosting the levels of toxic gases in smoke, a new study suggests.
Widely used “halogen-based” retardants, which contain the chemical element bromine. increase levels of toxic carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide when they burn, according to Dr. Anna A. Stec, who led the new study.
Stec noted such retardants are commonly added to carpets, furniture upholstery, plastics, crib mattresses, car and airline seats and other products to suppress the visible flames in fires.
Stec -- a scientist with the University of Central Lancashire, Centre for Fire and Hazards Science in England – pointed out that toxic gases in smoke, and not burns on the body, are the chief cause of most fire-related deaths.
"Halogen-based flame retardants are effective in reducing the ignitability of materials," Stec said, in presenting her findings at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society. "We found, however, that flame retardants have the undesirable effect of increasing the amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide released during combustion. These gases, not the thermal effects of burns on the body, are the No. 1 cause of fire deaths."
Almost 10,000 deaths from fires occur worldwide each year, including about 3,500 in the U.S.
Unlike the halogen retardants, mineral-based products have little effect on fire toxicity and “intumescent” retardants reduce the amount of potentially toxic gases, the researchers noted.