Flame Retardants

Flame retardants are a group of chemicals added to many materials to interfere with the ignition and/or combustion process. There are many types of flame retardant chemicals, from inorganic chemicals used simply as fillers, to systems based on antimony and phosphates or halogenated organic chemicals. These chemicals can be mixed in as an additive to plastics and foams, chemically bound to the polymers, or applied as a coating. Flame-retardant materials are ubiquitous, showing up in many consumer products such as electronics, computers, televisions, mattresses, and sofas. The addition of retardants, which interfere with and impede the combustion process, can enable a consumer product to meet fire safety standards.

Recently, some flame-retardant chemicals have become the focus of governmental regulators and consumer safety groups after scientists began detecting concentrations of these chemicals in environmental samples and human breast milk. Concern was raised about how these chemicals are being released into the environment by product use or during fires, as well as potential human exposure through direct contact, inhalation, and our diets. As a result of this increased scrutiny, certain formulations of the halogenated flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been banned in the European Union and removed from production in the United States, after toxicology studies reported potential endocrine-disrupting effects in laboratory animals.

Exponent’s scientists and engineers provide a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and expertise to our clients from a variety of perspectives. Our multidisciplinary team can address all aspects of product and chemical stewardship, from initial design, to product use, to final disposal. We can also comprehensively address health, safety, and regulatory concerns. Specifically, Exponent’s materials scientists and engineers can assist with product design and polymer selection to aid in development of a quality product, with life-cycle analysis in mind. Consultants in our thermal sciences practice can determine whether a product meets fire safety standards and elucidate the release mechanisms of flame-retardant chemicals during fires. If a release has occurred, our environmental engineers and scientists can investigate the fate of these chemicals in the environment and determine potential ecological risks. Our toxicologists can determine human exposure to flame retardants through product use and environmental sources, to assess potential risks to human health.