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News

Scientific data, heightened public safety concerns to drive strong growth in FR additives

Great Lakes Chemical Corporation : 26 October, 2001  (Technical Article)
The use of flame-retardant (FR) additives is expected to experience strong growth in the next five years, according to Great Lakes Chemical Corporation.
The use of flame-retardant (FR) additives is expected to experience strong growth in the next five years, according to Great Lakes Chemical Corporation.

The anticipated growth is being attributed to two factors: (1) a more scientific-based approach to evaluating the effects of such additives on the environment and (2) an increased global emphasis on public safety.

Global Scientific, Environmental Factors

When politics drives the debate over additives, the discussion often boils down to the call for a ban on all fire-retardant chemicals, starting with halogenated compounds currently in high use. However, that position is increasingly at odds not just with trends in the marketplace, but also with recent scientific findings and the resulting adjustments in official attitudes.

When science drives the issue, the conclusions are far different. One global trend appears under way that is using science to confirm the key reason for using FR polymer additive technology in the first place–namely, that these products save lives and property.

A look at developments in a number of countries reveals the strength of this trend.

Sweden

Sweden has been generally credited with being most strongly against FR additives, with its Chemical Inspectorate providing the leading critical voice. Yet, in April 2001, the Chemical Inspectorate criticized as “inconclusive” research by environmental activists in their case against brominated FRs.

“Just because a fire retardant contains bromine doesn’t make it dangerous,” said Eva Ljung of the Chemical Inspectorate in remarks contained in the April 26 issue of Miljorapporten, an environmental advocacy magazine.

Of course, the Nordic countries are still looking closely and critically at FR products. In the past year, they’ve raised important questions about antimony, phosphate, and bromine-based FRs. But, again, the prevailing view highlights the role of these products in saving lives and property as the prime considerations.

Belgium

In Brussels, the European Commission and Parliament spent much time and many resources this year looking at brominated FRs in the context of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and hazardous substance ban (RoHS) directives. At one point, the commission considered banning all brominated FRs. Instead, the Parliament passed a law that will ban rarely used PBBs and PBDEs for electrical and electronic equipment.

Risk assessments are underway on two important FR additives–decabrom and octabrom; scientific data generated to date proves that these chemicals are environmentally acceptable.

Japan

In Tokyo, the Japan Environment Association has recently changed its ecolabel criteria for copiers, printers, and PCs. The change withdraws the exclusion of all BrFRs to just PBBs and PBDEs, products that have little impact on the marketplace. Pressure for this change has filtered up from Japanese OEMs, who recognize the superior recyclability of BrFR plastics and also the consumer demand for greater fire safety.

United States

In recent years, the National Academy of Sciences examined the effects on human health of 16 FR chemicals used to meet new furniture fire safety standards. The studies produced enough data for the Academy to definitively evaluate eight of these products. The Academy concluded that there were no significant environmental or health concerns related to the use of these additives.

This bill of health has generated additional investment by chemical manufacturers in the environmental and health impact of their products. The Polymer Additives division of Great Lakes, for example, has spent tens of millions of dollars in scientific research to fully understand the health aspects of its products.

“We have commissioned research in areas that although were never raised by regulators, were of concern to Great Lakes and our employees” says Anne Noonan, Vice President of Technology, Marketing, and Advocacy for Great Lakes’ flame retardant business. “And, every sentence of every scientific report we make is shared with environmental authorities and is readily available to the press and the public. Earlier this year, we volunteered for a U.S. EPA program that studied at the effects of various chemicals on children. This is just one example of how Great Lakes seeks out opportunities to hear new points of view.”

Noonan acknowledges that the politics of FRs can sometimes overshadow the science, adding, “We honour our product stewardship commitments not because of the politics, but in spite of the politics.” She says that in the end, the marketplace is increasingly making its decisions not on the “noise” of politics, but on the science of the issue, as well as consumer demands.

“That trend,” she adds, “will paint a bright growth outlook for the use of FRs for the near future.”

Public Safety Factors

The second major component of FR growth is the increased interest in improving public safety. As a general backdrop, the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States have only exacerbated this interest. But even factoring that out, renewed concerns for better fire prevention and containment were already on the public agenda.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the National Fire Protection Association issue annual estimates on fire losses in the nation.

Based on these figures, it’s estimated that there are approximately 400,000 residential fires each year requiring a response from firefighters. These fires kill about 4,000 people, with another 20,000 people suffering serious injuries from burns. The fires also result in property losses totalling about $4.5 billion. Of these fires, approximately 70,000 involve electrical distribution and appliances; another 40,000 stem from fires in upholstered furniture and mattresses.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about these statistics is that they grossly underreport the problem. For example, a congressional investigation revealed that the federal government, which employs two million civilians housed in 8,300 buildings, has no data on even the largest of fires on its own property. Also, and incredibly, there have been years in which large states such as California and Pennsylvania have not reported a single fire. Clearly, this shows that nationwide fire reporting systems are severely inadequate.

In Europe, the system for collecting and reporting fire data is not much better, but even with partial data, the member states of the European Union report about 80,000 people are seriously injured in European fires each year. Of these, some 60,000 are hurt in their homes.

One subset of fires that has attracted attention is the number of European fires involving television sets. According to the Swedish National Testing and Research Institute, about 160 people die each year in Europe as a direct result of TV fires. In Sweden, for example, which has relatively lax fire-safety standards for the plastic housings of TV sets, there are 165 TV-set fires per million population. By comparison, the United States, with stringent FR standards in this area, shows less than two TV fires per million in population.

For all the criticism of FRs–not by the scientists or even the environmentalists, but mainly by politicians–the European Commission acknowledges there would be 20 percent more European fire deaths if FRs were not being used. In the same vein, the UK reports that 1,860 lives have been saved in the past decade because of that country’s safety standards for upholstered furniture, due to the use of FRs.

There is a growing realization in the world that fire retardants are saving lives. The data confirm that. Of course, statistics can provide only a sterile and partial picture. To truly judge the full impact of a fire, one interview with a burn survivor or a fire fighter will make the point. A fire can be a horrific event.

That point is graphically made by John Dean, fire marshal for the State of Maine. Dean recently told a reporter for Plastics News magazine, “We are not in the business of asking, `How high do you want the bodies piled?’ We are in the business of preventing fires.”

Higher Demand, Greater Safety

The marketplace is reflecting this need to deal aggressively with the massive destruction and cost of fires. Companies in turn are responding with products that use FR additives for extra safety in a vast array of products, including highly combustible plastic outer casings and housings, candles, power cords, and the like.

In the United States, for example, televisions are made with fire-resistant outer housings. In Japan, some of the most prominent TV makers - Panasonic, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi - are now following suit. No regulatory agency or governmental power is making them do it. They just want to do the right thing.

This is another prevailing tendency that has recently emerged, what can be called the “social conscience” trend. Companies are increasingly taking it upon themselves to improve the fire performance of their goods for marketing concerns, surely, but also to a greater extent for ethical reasons. Again, it’s being done because it is the right thing to do.

There have been many “Green Label” attacks on FRs over the years, but the untold story is that many ecolabels are increasingly reflecting the concerns that imposing restrictions on FRs may be creating increased risk of fire. In short, ecolabels often follow a common sense approach in their considerations of FR additives. As a result, more lives will be saved.

For instance, TCO, Sweden’s ecolabel for computers, is expected to include fire safety standards in its next set of criteria. Why? Fire safety officials from Sweden, Finland, France, the U.K., Belgium, Germany, Canada, and the United States are worried about TCO’s restrictions on FRs as a public safety question. Fire safety advocacy groups worldwide are urging TCO to include effective fire safety standards to help ensure that lives are not lost. Not just in Sweden, but governments worldwide are in greater agreement than ever before: fire safety and environmental concerns must be treated with equal importance.

Product Trends

Indeed, the trends in upholstered furniture, appliances, and automobiles reflect significant increases in the use of FRs. Manufacturers are likewise responding with an array of new FR products and technologies.

Furniture – The US Consumer Product Safety Commission recently agreed to move forward with tough, new fire safety standards for mattresses. In July, California issued its own laws for improved safety of mattresses and bedding. In addition, a U.S. consortium of companies and associations, coordinated by former presidential Chief of Staff John Sununu, is now drafting federal legislation for higher safety levels for upholstered furniture, sleep products, candles, and cigarettes.

Appliances – The US Underwriters Laboratory (UL) has just adopted new fire safety standards that will result in a significant increase in the use of FR chemical additives. More than 40 other UL standards, governing thousands of products, are directly affected, including hair dryers, toasters, power drills, and electric can openers. Manufacturers will have two choices: re-engineer their products or use fire-resistant outer housings. The early indication is that most manufacturers view FR additives as by far the more cost-effective approach.

Automotive – The US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration plans to change its rear-impact test for autos from 30 mph to 50 mph. The implications for fire safety are enormous, as it will affect how fuel systems, interiors, and even some exterior parts are made.

Manufacturers Respond

Increasingly, additives manufacturers are heeding the call of the marketplace for improved FR additives that meet customers’ exact specifications. This call has been prompted by recent scientific data on the efficacy of such materials as well as a heightened desire for greater public safety.

Enlightened Manufacturers of FR products are following more sensitive environmental practices. For example, Great Lakes’ Responsible Care programme continually refines the manufacturing process to keep improving its environmental record. The ultimate effect of such stewardship will be far less reluctance to employ FR technology to meet the overwhelming desire for greater fire safety in consumer products.

“We want to respond to our customers’ needs,” says Mark Bulriss, chairman, president, and CEO of Great Lakes. “Our customers are expressing a growing interest in fire safety, and we will invest in environmentally responsible products that satisfy that demand. In fact, we are on schedule to double our year-2000 production of new high-quality flame retardants.”

In response to this growing demand for improved FR technology, Great Lakes’ Polymer Additives division announced three new FR products:

Reogard 1000: A non-halogenated, phosphorus nitrogen FR for injection moulded polypropylene used in electrical/electronic, wire & cable appliance, and mass transit applications.

Firemaster 550: A phosphorus-bromine, high-performance FR for flexible polyurethane foams, which meets MVSS 302, CAL TB117 parts A and D, and BS5852 crib 5 standards, as well as the more stringent UL94 HF-1 specification. Firemaster 550 is available in Asia and the Americas only.

Reofos NHP: A low fogging, non-halogen additive for hot moulded polyurethane automotive seat foams. This FR product offers an alternative to chloralklyl phosphates in order to meet the MVSS 302 standard.

Citing these new products as examples, Bulriss says that FR manufacturers who commit to the highest standards of excellence in product quality, productivity, and customer satisfaction should enjoy robust growth over the next several years.
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