Almost any material can be treated with fire retardant solution to make it less combustible and harder to burn. Fire retardant sprays and additives are available for virtually any surface including fabrics, wood, electronic components, and paper. Fire retardant products are widely used to make a variety of goods less likely to burn.
Fire retardant materials are often used in the construction of skyscrapers and hotels. They can be added to paint, applied to furniture, and incorporated into mattresses. Some building codes require their use.
Fire retardants can work by forming a protective non-flammable layer around an otherwise combustible material physically preventing it from igniting. They also work by responding to extreme heat with a chemical reaction releasing water vapors to dilute combustible gases. Diluting flammable gases can act to prevent a fire from igniting or slow the burn rate of an existing one. They can also create a layer of carbon char when something is burning. Carbon char is very flame resistant, so its presence can prevent flames from spreading on an existing burn or stop it completely.
Fire fighters use fire retardants when battling forest fires by dropping them from airplanes or spraying them on the ground. A fire retardant dropped from a plane serves to cool large burning areas and reduce the height of flames. They can also be used to create fire breaks containing a fire and its ability to spread.
Race car drivers and fire fighters wear suits made from highly fire retardant fabrics. These suits have extremely high melting points and can withstand intense heat and exposure without igniting. Fire resistant suits are also used in some military applications.
Fire retardants were developed in the 60’s and regularly used on products needing to meet high safety standards like children’s apparel, and car seats. A class of fire retardant solutions called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDE’s, safety was questioned in the early 2000’s. Studies showed that PBDE’s were being absorbed and stored in fatty tissue but not broken down and expelled from the body.
This lead to accusations that PBDE was causing prenatal birth defects, adversely affecting brain development in children, and were possible carcinogenic. Proponents of these theories are currently working to ban this class of chemicals from further use. PBDEs have also been accused of having a negative impact on wildlife, showing up around the globe in a wide variety of animal species.