Finding Alternatives to Dangerous Flame Retardant Chemicals

Materials Studio

The prospect of a house fire is terrifying, but there are also growing fears about the potential health risks of flame retardant chemicals. With modern software, researchers may be able to develop materials that address both concerns. Image Credit: Flickr usr Ada Be

Flame retardant chemicals have been a mainstay of manufactured goods for decades. In order to reduce the odds of house fires, manufacturers added flame retardant chemicals to a wide range of possible fire hazards, including mattresses, couches, and clothing. This year, as fires have raged across California and other Western states, people around the country remain invested in finding ways to reduce the odds that the products in their homes will catch fire.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the health problems that are associated with many flame retardant chemicals. Scientists have been aware of these risks for decades. As early as the 1970’s, one type of flame retardant chemical was removed from children’s pajamas for safety reasons.1 More recently, in the early 2000’s, the European Union and several U.S. states banned the use of certain types of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs).2 This year, the conversation about the potential health effects of flame retardant chemicals was reignited by the publication of a study indicating that organophosphate flame retardants may cause fertility problems in women.3

The simultaneous concerns about fires in residential areas and the negative health effects of certain flame retardant chemicals has opened up opportunities for materials scientists to create safer alternatives. With modern chemical software, it may be possible for materials scientists to find a solution that effectively addresses both issues.

Nanoparticles as Flame Retardant Chemicals

Some materials scientists have proposed addressing the problem by incorporating flame-retardant nanoparticles into common fabrics that are prone to catching fire. For instance, one research group developed nanoparticles that could be used to confer flame retardancy to polyester, a fabric that is practically ubiquitous in the home. Polyester is used in everything from furniture to clothing to wall- and floor-coverings, so it is a major target for researchers looking to reduce household fire hazards.

One research group found a way to incorporate non-flammable, silica-based nanoparticles into polyester fabric. By adding functional groups to the nanoparticles, they were able to induce the attachment of the nanoparticles to the fabric so that they would be permanently incorporated into the fabric. In developing these particles, the researchers only used commercially available materials that had previously been tested for toxicity, so it is likely that the nanoparticles pose no major risks to human health.

Using Nanoclays to Prevent Combustion

Another potential innovation that could revolutionize fire retardancy in home products is the incorporation of nanoclays into solid flammable materials. Nanoclays can form a gauze-like network in a solid material, which disrupts the breakdown of the material in a high-fire-risk situation. In this way, it prevents the release of gas-phase combustible molecules that are essential for the combustion reactions that lead to the ignition and spread of home fires. Nanoclays can also improve the performance of existing flame retardant chemicals, like metal hydroxides, which means that they can be used in smaller amounts while still achieving comparable protective effects.

Using Modern Technology to Support Research on Flame Retardant Chemicals

One of the reasons why governments have hesitated to ban existing flame retardant chemicals in the past — even those that may pose health risks — is that they were still the best way to prevent fires. However, with today’s technology, materials scientists have an unprecedented opportunity to develop safe alternatives. The following software capabilities can be particularly valuable for flame retardant material developers:

  • Molecular construction tools. With these tools, researchers can visualize and examine the properties of nanoparticles and other flame retardant alternatives when different functional groups have been added or removed.
  • Molecular interaction visualization tools. These tools enable researchers to study molecular-level interactions between common materials like polyester and potential flame retardants like nanoparticles and nanoclays.
  • Research collaboration tools. Finding ways to replace flame-retardant chemicals with safer alternatives is a highly interdisciplinary endeavor. With collaborative software, materials scientists can easily share their ideas with experts in the fields of health and consumer goods in order to ensure that they ultimately create a product that is safe and meets consumer demands.

BIOVIA Materials Studio is a high-level software solution that materials science researchers can use to accomplish a wide range of goals, including developing safer alternatives to flame retardant chemicals. Contact us today to learn about this and all of our other products!

  1. “Flame retardants may be messing with women’s fertility – and they’re in way more than yoga mats,” August 28, 2017, https://www.popsci.com/flame-retardants-may-be-messing-with-womens-fertility-and-theyre-in-way-more-than-yoga-mats
  2.  “New thinking on flame retardants,” May 2008, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2367656/
  3. “Urinary concentrations of organophosphate flame retardant metabolites and pregnancy outcomes among women undergoing in vitro fertilization,” August 2017, https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/EHP1021/