Newer homes are remarkably energy tight thanks to superior insulating materials that are in wide circulation today. The energy savings can be substantial – homeowners can use up to 60% less energy in the most efficient green homes. Now, a study published by a team of researchers in Building Research & Information makes it clear that the very materials that provide us with such energy efficiency are pumped full of harmful flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals, HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) and TCPP (1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate, are related to banned and phased-out substances like DDT, pentaBDE, and Tris. They are environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative, and are being manufactured at a frenetic pace without thought to how they might impact our environment and ultimately, our health.

The study focuses on foam insulation material: the spray-foam insulation you may have applied to fill a leaky attic as well as foam board insulation popular in green buildings for its excellent insulating properties. These materials are regularly treated with the flame retardants HBCD and TCPP to meet building standards for fire safety. But building codes do not specifically require the addition of flame retardants to foam insulation and the study shows that the presence of ½” thick drywall itself is enough to provide fire safety for many uses. So why are they being added at extra expense to manufacturers and unknown risk to us?

Tens of millions of pounds of these flame retardant chemicals are being produced each year worldwide, with building insulation being the primary application. HBCD, the flame retardant added to polystyrene insulation, is currently being produced at a rate of 68 million pounds per year. Because of its highly bioaccumulative nature, HBCD is poised to become the 22nd chemical banned under the Stockholm Convention. In animal studies, it interferes with hormones and affects the developing nervous system.

The situation with TCPP isn’t any rosier. Data from the year 2000 in the EU shows it was being produced at a rate of 88 million pounds per year. Unlike HBCD, it tends to associate with water rather than fat and accumulates in the kidneys and liver. TCPP is found globally in groundwater, wastewater, and wildlife. Unfortunately, even if we completely stop production tomorrow, HBCD and TCPP will be a problem for decades to come; the similarly persistent pesticide DDT is still causing reproductive problems for the endangered California condor and can be found in every person tested by the CDC despite its being banned since 1972.

This alludes to a larger story about regulation and the power of industry. We tend to think that consumer products in this country are generally safe – surely someone is watching to ensure that they are not harmful to us or to the environment. A few areas, like pharmaceuticals, do benefit from government oversight to ensure companies are cautious and deliberate before bringing products to market. But for the vast majority of the products that are introduced to the public each year, there is no requirement that manufacturers prove what they’re peddling is not harmful, even if it contains substances that have known track records in animal studies or other equivalent evidence of toxicity. This industry-friendly approach is not the only model out there - it stands in sharp contrast to the EU’s Precationary Principle that places the burden of proof upon manufacturers to demonstrate a product is not harmful before distributing it for sale. Given the high stakes of such persistent environmental pollutants, it seems reckless to pump them into the environment with no long-term management plan, particularly since there are safer alternatives. At least in this one instance, our efforts to “green” up our energy consumption may be digging us deeper into a very different environmental hole.

The good news, as today’s study suggests, is that these chemicals are in many cases unnecessary additions to building insulation. They can safely be removed without affecting fire safety. So, for once, we can have it all: buildings that are safe, energy-efficient, and easy on the environment.


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