Perkins+Will maintains a Precautionary List, an index of building materials that can harm the human body. While mercury and lead’s impacts may be well understood, those of one ubiquitous set of chemicals have not been: flame-retardant chemicals. They are common in many architectural materials, from upholstery to insulation, and they slow the spread of fire in otherwise flammable substances. However, they also tend to escape into the environment and become absorbed in the human body, where they don’t break down. What results is a “body burden”: a cache of chemicals that has been linked to cancer, loss of IQ, and diabetes. For its inaugural Perkins+Will Science Fellowship program, the firm hired chemist Michel Dedeo to research the subject for an architectural audience. He and Suzanne Drake, Perkins+Will senior interior designer and associate, recently wrote a white paper with their findings

Suzanne Drake flame retardants
Photo courtesy Suzanne Drake

How did this project begin?

It’s the firm’s philosophy that bringing information to our clients is the best way to practice. Previously, it was difficult to understand the information on flame retardants, as all the studies were written for a science audience. That’s how the idea for the fellowship program came about—a short-term project where we could engage someone’s science expertise. Michel was such a great fit, thanks to his tremendous background as a Ph.D. in chemistry and his extensive work with the Healthy Building Network.

Flame retardants can lead to cancer. How did they come to be so prevalent?

There are a few jurisdictions in the country with stringent flame-resistance requirements, which tend to become the default requirements for everybody. New York and Boston are very strict, but California’s Technical Bulletin (TB) 117 was the most stringent. It stated that exposed foam in a fully upholstered piece of furniture had to pass an open-flame test and withstand bursting into flames for 12 seconds. However, it’s not a realistic test. You don’t have exposed foam in most finished buildings. The cheapest way to pass that test is to load the common polyurethane foam with halogenated flame retardants. That’s how the chemical became so prevalent in furniture upholstery foam. Studies showed that levels of flame retardants in the blood and urine samples of Californians rose higher than the national rate after the regulation’s passing in the mid-1970s.

Why has policy been slow to catch up?

The presence of the toxins is so broad, so dependent on an individual’s response and their preexisting body burden. It’s very easy to get people to change their ways when there’s a direct connection, but [flame retardant is] more insidious. That’s why Perkins+Will has taken a stance. It’s our way of saying, “We don’t need to wait for that direct connection to be drawn, because it may never happen.”

Insulation seems to be the biggest challenge, as the paper indicates.

There have been some changes in legislation. The California TB117 was recently changed such that it may be easier and cheaper to put flame retardants in the fabric instead of the foam. There are more low-flame-retardant fabric alternatives, and we can now specify furniture with flame-retardant-free foam. From our research, I know that there are a lot of alternatives. The Safer Insulation Solutions website has an extensive chart comparing different kinds of insulation. 

What can architects do now, not just in terms of specifying alternatives, but tackling the issue in the long term?

Educating the client is a good starting point. In the long term, building codes could go a long way by being updated. It all goes back to the flame test: most of the “stronger” flame retardants, such as the halogenated ones, are applied to plastic materials. But the actual test they must pass, developed in the 1930s, was based on wood burning and isn’t accurate for plastic. Yet we still use it as a standard. Regulators worry about liability issues if we change it. There are also a lot of deep pockets involved: you can look at the Chicago Tribune investigative reporting series and the film Toxic Hot Seat to see how invested these chemical companies are in maintaining the status quo. Changing regulations will allow us to produce solutions that are right for the project, the client, and the health and safety of the occupants. We have sprinkler systems for fires that occur once in a blue moon—meanwhile, I’m being exposed to these chemicals every day for years on end. Which is more dangerous?