Basics of Fire Safety and Flame Retardants

FAQs addresssing CPSC’s Ongoing Review of Additive, Non-Polymeric Organohalogen Flame Retardants

Questions & Answers

CPSC’s Actions

Q: Did the CPSC vote to ban additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants? No. The CPSC actions are not a restriction or ban on additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants. The CPSC merely voted to “further study” this broad range of chemicals and to begin the rule-making process, which will require further detailed analysis under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. This will include convening a panel of scientists to further evaluate these chemicals.

The commissioners also voted to publish a non-binding guidance document, discouraging the use of additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants in children’s products, upholstered furniture sold for use in residences, mattresses (and mattress pads) and plastic casings surrounding electronics.

It is worth noting the commissioners were deeply divided on all of these issues, including the creation of the guidance document. As one commissioner who voted against the guidance noted, any pronouncements about the safety of these chemicals should not be made before the CPSC-initiated study on their health and safety is complete.

 Q: Which products will be covered in the rulemaking and review process? Products containing additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants, including durable infant or toddler products, children’s toys, childcare articles or other children’s products (other than children’s car seats); upholstered furniture sold for use in residences; mattresses and mattress pads; and plastic casings surrounding electronics.

Q: Are CPSC’s concerns about the safety of additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants warranted? No. The three commissioners who voted in favor of these actions failed to consider fully the health and safety studies that were provided to them, showing how supporting that specific additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants can be used safely to protect people from the threat of fire.

The three commissioners also ignored the recommendations of their own scientific staff. CPSC staff determined the substances covered in the petition could not be treated as a single class under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act due to their differing physicochemical properties and toxicological profiles. Given that fact, the staff recommended against moving forward with the rule-making process.

Unfortunately, the three commissioners ignored this science-based recommendation and moved ahead with this unnecessary, overreaching decision.

The Meaning of the CPSC Guidance Document

Q: What is the significance of the guidance document CPSC issued? The guidance document discourages businesses and consumers from using or purchasing products that have additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants in durable infant or toddler products, children’s toys, childcare articles or other children’s products (other than car seats); upholstered furniture sold for use in residences; mattresses and mattress pads; and plastic casings surrounding electronics or purchasing .

The document is not in any way a legal requirement or binding for businesses. CPSC cannot enforce such guidance without first engaging in the rulemaking process. Importantly, two of the CPSC commissioners voiced strong objections to publishing the guidance document, noting that it is being published before a CPSC-initiated study on potential risks associated with the use of additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants has even begun.

Basics of Fire Safety and Flame Retardants

Q: Is fire still a threat to life and property? Yes. According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2015, fire departments in the U.S. responded to a fire every 23 seconds. That same year, NFPA reported that firefighters responded to nearly 1.35 million fires, which resulted in 3,280 civilian fire fatalities, 15,700 civilian fire injuries and an estimated $14.3 billion in property loss. According to the NFPA, young children and people over 65 face the highest risk of fire death.

Q: What are additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants, and why do we need them in our products? Additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants, which are the subject of the CPSC’s recent action, are a group of chemicals that are used in a number of products to help prevent them from catching fire. They are one of a number of fire-safety tools. Studies support and regulatory authorities have determined that specific additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants can be used safely in specific applications. Importantly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory agencies around the world already have regulatory oversight of these chemicals.

CPSC’s Role in Fire Safety

Q: Should CPSC be evaluating these chemicals? The EPA and other regulatory bodies around the world are already charged with regulating chemicals. The CPSC is unique in its oversight of fire safety in consumer products. In fact, CPSC has recalled hundreds of products over the last several years due to fire-safety concerns.

Flame retardants are an important tool that can help products meet important fire-safety standards, which is why it is so disheartening that the discussion around this issue has lacked any consideration of fire safety and how the petition could compromise the fire safety of consumer products.

The Impact on Businesses and Consumers

Q: How will CPSC’s decision affect manufacturers who use or consumers who purchase products containing additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants? Consumers and manufacturers are not obligated to follow the recommendations in the CPSC guidance document. The recommendations are non-binding and unenforceable. As consumers and manufacturers consider any guidance issued by CPSC, it is important to consider the context for this guidance and carefully evaluate the overall safety of products. In particular, businesses should ensure the fire safety of their products.

Q: How can I address my customer inquiries or concerns about these flame retardants? It will be vitally important to communicate to customers that the recommendations in the guidance document are completely non-binding and unenforceable. It is important to note to your customers that the CPSC commissioners were deeply divided, and the final decision did not undergo a rigorous scientific process. It is also important to communicate that flame retardants provide an important layer of fire protection and help save lives.

You should share this Q&A with them and encourage them to go to a website we will soon launch to address any questions your customers may have about additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants. We will share the site and other information as it is developed.

Customers also need to take into account the overall global regulatory environment when evaluating this guidance. Chemical producers are required to develop and share a broad range of environmental, health and safety information on their chemicals. Extensive information on a chemical’s properties, intended use and potential exposure are required for the registration and production of chemicals in many countries. The guidance being issued by the CPSC runs counter to, and in some cases is in direct conflict with, government assessments of many additive, non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants, which show that they do not present a risk to human health at the levels detected in the environment.

Finally, customers should be reminded that flame retardants are not readily interchangeable. Their areas of application are often specific, and substitution can be extremely difficult. The diversity of materials that need to be made fire-resistant and to which flame retardants are added can have very different physical and chemical properties. Similarly, end-use performance requirements, including certification to national standards, must be considered when choosing a flame retardant for a particular application. A product manufacturer cannot simply substitute one flame retardant for another without significant time and cost devoted to formulation, performance testing, certification and, in the case of plastic components, blending, molding and extrusion as well.

Scientific Support for the Decision

Q: Didn’t the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences testify against the use of these flame retardants? The testimony by Linda Birnbaum, the institute’s director, was in direct conflict with some of the studies that have come out of her own agency. This leaves us to believe she may not be aware of all the relevant information and may have been speaking as an advocate rather than an impartial government scientist.

Q: Isn’t there strong scientific support for grouping these substances together as a class and for the CPSC’s decision? No, a key claim by the three commissioners who voted for this action is that there is overwhelming science and consensus that all of these substances present a risk. This is simply not the case. On the contrary, there is clear evidence from the CPSC’s own technical staff, other federal agencies and even the National Toxicology Program (which was referenced as supporting the commissioners’ action) that these substances cannot simply be grouped together with a one-size-fits-all approach and that many of these substances do not present a risk to human health. So it is inaccurate and disingenuous to suggest otherwise.