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Firefighters’ Perspective on Flame Retardants
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Firefighters’ Perspective on Flame Retardants

By Kenneth W. Fent, Ph.D., CIH, Gavin P. Horn, Ph.D., and Sean DeCrane | Fire Protection Engineering


Modern structure fires present different risks to firefighters than structure fires from several decades ago, due in part to the amount of synthetic materials used in U.S. households. 1 These synthetic materials tend to be highly flammable and produce large volumes of smoke and effluent.2 Flame retardants have been added to many flammable household products over the last 40 years, primarily to meet the California open flame standard (TB 117) adopted in 1975.3 The TB 117 open flame test was conducted on bare filling materials (e.g., foam). Consequently, adding flame retardants to filling materials became a primary means of meeting the standard.3

The effectiveness of flame retardants at slowing the progression of a fire depends on a number of factors, including the amount of flame retardants used in the product, flammability of the fabric or other covering around the product, orientation of the product relative to the ignition source, and type of ignition source.4-8 In general, flammability standards have not fully accounted for these variables and have mainly tested two ignition sources (i.e., small open flame and smoldering cigarette), even though several other types of ignition sources have been indicated in fatal fires involving upholstered furniture.8 Consequently, the fire safety benefits of adding flame retardants to consumer products to meet these standards has come under scrutiny.8 Recently, new flammability standards have been adopted or proposed – including a revision to TB 117 – that allow for other ways to reduce flammability beyond the addition of flame retardants, such as incorporating barrier materials into the product.9-12 The National Fire Protection Association is also exploring the development of flammability standards that are more representative of real-world conditions.13

Prior to 2005, the most commonly used flame retardants— at least in furnishings—were polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCPP).14,15 Manufacture and import of PBDEs was phased out between 2003 and 2013,16 and several producers have committed to stop using TDCPP in favor of less hazardous alternatives.14 However, products containing these flame retardants will remain inside structures for decades to come while they are gradually replaced by products containing alternative flame retardants or products that meet flammability standards by other means. While scientists have some understanding of the biological absorption, distribution, and toxicity associated with PBDEs, they are generally less familiar with the alternative flame retardants currently being used, which include brominated, chlorinated, chlorinated phosphorus, and mineral compounds.17


Currently, the two leading health concerns for the fire service are cancer and cardiovascular disease. Sudden cardiac deaths have accounted for 42% of the on-duty deaths in the last five years,18 and several studies have indicated that firefighters have an increased risk of several cancers compared to the general population.19 A NIOSH cohort study of 30,000 career firefighters employed from 1950 to 2009 found an excessive risk of digestive, oral, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cancers, as well as mesothelioma, when compared to non-firefighters.20 In addition to individual firefighters’ personal risk factors, occupational factors may increase the risk of these negative health outcomes. Occupational factors include physical exertion, heat stress, and chemical exposure.

Incomplete combustion will produce hundreds if not thousands of chemicals. These combustion byproducts will often include known carcinogens (e.g., benzene, benzo[a]pyrene, formaldehyde) and chemicals that can affect the cardiovascular system (e.g., carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and fine particulate). Fate and transport of PBDEs during fires is not well understood, but some of the compounds are expected to be released unaltered into the fire building or as thermal decomposition products such as brominated-dioxins, furans, or acid gases.

Animal studies demonstrate that relatively high doses of PBDEs (i.e., >100x the levels found in the general population) can cause adverse effects on the thyroid, liver, and immune system, as well as neurobehavioral and developmental alterations.21 Certain congeners also appear to be carcinogenic in animals.21 Dioxins and furans appear to produce similar health effects as PBDEs in animals.22 An alarming characteristic of PBDEs is that they are highly persistent, fat soluble, and can bioaccumulate in the body. PBDEs, dioxins, and furans have biological half-lives ranging from several days to years.21-24 Most alternative flame retardants are not persistent and can be excreted from the body within hours or a few days.25 However, animal studies suggest that some of these alternative flame retardants can also produce adverse health effects.26,27


We are just beginning to understand the magnitude and composition of occupational exposure to flame retardants in firefighters. It is reasonable to expect flame retardants or their combustion byproducts to be released during structure fires, resulting in an increased risk of exposure for firefighters. Two studies have characterized PBDE exposures in California firefighters; both found elevated levels of a variety of PBDEs in serum compared to the general population.28,29 In the most recent study, cleaning turnout gear was associated with reduced serum levels of certain PBDE congeners, while interior fire suppression within the last month was associated with elevated serum levels of PBDEs.28 In a related study, investigators found substantially higher levels of deca-BDE in dust in firehouses compared to dust in California homes, possibly due to the tracking of contamination from a fire incident to the firehouse.30 In addition to PBDEs, metabolites of a variety of chlorinated and brominated dioxins and furans were also detected in firefighters’ serum.29

Theoretically, firefighters could inhale flame retardants, dioxins, and furans during periods of the response when they are not wearing SCBA. For example, firefighters do not always wear SCBA during exterior operations (deploying hose, forcible entry, outside vent) or during overhaul operations. Firefighters’ PPE ensembles could also become contaminated with these compounds and then transferred to the skin. A number of studies have characterized contamination on PPE ensembles, focusing primarily on PAHs, heavy metals, phthalates, and VOCs.31-34 Retired turnout gear was recently evaluated for a variety of contaminants, and PBDEs were among the most abundant compounds measured.35Because some flame retardants, dioxins, and furans are highly persistent, they could accumulate on gear over time and transfer to the skin of firefighters where they may be dermally absorbed or ingested. Studies suggest that dioxins and furans may be more readily absorbed through skin than PBDEs.22,36

Another possible exposure pathway is from the particulate and vapors produced during a fire that may penetrate or permeate the protective barriers of the turnout gear and directly contact the skin. Studies have demonstrated that neck and hands are particularly vulnerable to this exposure pathway.33,37 The current knowledge base on chemical exposures during firefighting suggests that incident commanders may need to consider the potential for chemical exposures when making risk-versus-benefit tactical decisions during a fire response.


Initial studies suggest that firefighters have higher biomarker levels of certain flame retardants than the general U.S. population.28,29 Additional studies are currently underway to determine the predominant exposure pathway, route of absorption, and biological levels of flame retardants, dioxins, and furans in firefighters before and after suppressing modern structure fires. Also, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Fire Prevention & Safety (FP&S)-funded study was initiated in June 2015. Questions that need to be answered include:

  • Are the levels of exposures in firefighters capable of causing adverse health effects?
  • How long do systemic exposures from the fireground remain with the firefighter (i.e., half-life)?
  • How much contamination can be expected on PPE ensembles following a fire response?
  • How effective are gross decontamination or laundering procedures at reducing PPE contamination levels and subsequent biological uptake in firefighters?
  • How effective are simple skin cleaning procedures at reducing dermal absorption?
  • Can firefighters’ tactical choices reduce their exposure to flame retardants?

Answering these questions is essential to provide evidence-based guidance for protecting firefighters. Additional studies are needed to determine the most effective ways to reduce the ignitability or flammability of consumer products that balance fire safety with downstream chemical exposure and toxicity.


Firefighters can take measures now to reduce their exposure to combustion byproducts, which in turn should minimize their exposure to flame retardants, dioxins, and furans. These measures include wearing SCBA for all phases of a response; active avoidance of the smoke plume when on the fireground; routine laundering of turnout coat, trousers, and hoods; and washing hands and neck and showering after doffing PPE ensembles. Some departments have initiated programs where firefighters can exchange their dirty hoods for laundered hoods prior to leaving the scene. Firefighters also should avoid transporting their PPE ensembles using personal vehicles or storing their PPE ensembles in living areas. Standard operating procedures that include the placement of exhaust fans at the doorways of the structure after knockdown and prior to overhaul operations also should be considered to reduce post-fire airborne concentrations of contaminants.

Kenneth W. Fent is with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Gavin P. Horn is with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Sean DeCrane is with the Cleveland Division of Fire.


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  2. Fabian, T., et al., Firefighter Exposure to Smoke Particulates 2010, Underwriters Laboratories: Northbrook, IL.
  3. California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insultation. Initial Statement of Reasons for Proposed Regulations: New Flammability Standards for Upholstered Furniture 2013; Available from:
  4. Babrauskas, V., et al., Flame Retardants in Furniture Foam: Benefits and Risks. Fire Safety Science-Proceedings of the Tenth International Symposium, 2011: pp. 265-278.
  5. Babrauskas, V., Fire Retardant Chemicals Association (U.S.), and United States. National Bureau of Standards., Fire hazard comparison of fire-retarded and nonfire- retarded products. NBS special publication. 1988, Gaithersburg, MD: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards. xiii, 86 p.
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  10. CFR, 16 CFR Part 1633: Standard for the Flammability (Open Flame) of Mattress Sets; Final Rule. Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration, 2006. 71 (No. 50).
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  17. EPA, An Alternatives Assessment for the Flame Retardant Decabromodiphenyl ether (DecaBDE). 2014.
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  23. Sjodin, A., D.G. Patterson, Jr., and A. Bergman, A review on human exposure to brominated flame retardants--particularly polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Environ Int, 2003. 29 (6): pp. 829-39.
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