If The Flames Don't Get You, The Retardants Will

Here's something most of us would rather not consider: would you sooner prevent your child's crib mattress from catching fire, or prevent everyone in the house dying from inhaling fumes if it does happen to ignite?

That seems to be the quandary presented by research coming out of the American Chemical Society's 243rd national meeting in San Diego. The number one cause of death in fires is not from burns, but from inhaled toxic gases. And researchers have found that bromine, the most common chemical added to electronics, carpets, furniture, plastics, crib mattresses, cars and airline seats to suppress flames is the best source of those deadly fumes.

Namely, the bromine treatments, which are "halogen based" retardants, increase the the amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide released during combustion. Fires lead to 10,000 deaths each year worldwide, and the vast majority are cause by inhaling poisonous fumes.

But not all flame-fighters are completely evil. Anna Stec, a chemistry lecturer in the Fire Science School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences at the University of Lancashire, who led the research, says she and her team found that other substances don't carry deadly side effects. Mineral-based formulas had little effect on fire toxicity, and "intumescent agents", which swell when heated to form a barrier that flames can't penetrate, actually reduced the amount of toxic gases releases during a fire.

The problem is that most products don't come with labels indicating what chemicals are in them. And this isn't the first time halogen-based retardants have come under fire. Other studies have found them to be toxic even when they're just hanging out in your home un-ignited. Studies have also found that humans are carrying around elevated levels of these chemicals in their body, which has been associated with learning disabilities and behaviour problem. And one 2010 study associated the chemicals with fertility problems. What to do? Pray for no fire? Don't inhale inside your home? Your best bet may be this Greenpeace buyer's guide. Three cheers for hippies. [American Chemical Society, Salon]

Image: Flickr/benwatts

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