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    Polystyrene Insulation: The Ugly Side of Flame Retardants

    Amy Leedham
    Oct 2, '12 2:17 PM EST

    Insulation is one of the main strategies being implemented to improve the energy efficiency of buildings around the world. However, this strategy is less affordable in the US because of the added cost of treating the insulation materials with flame retardants. Furthermore, the flame retardant used is a persistent, bioaccumulative, and  endocrine disrupting chemical called HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane).  HBCD is now found in dust, sewage, sludge, breast milk and body fluids, wildlife and the environment. This global contaminant is scheduled to become the 22nd chemical ever banned in 180 countries under the Stockholm Convention. 

    The scary reality is that in the US we are surrounded by toxic and harsh chemicals every day. The New York Times recently published an article addressing the legislation behind and health concerns of the flame retardants in your couch and mattress foam. It is thorough and enlightening read if your health in a concern to you at all.  This issue extends to the building industry as well for the same reasons as it applies to furniture, clothing and any other household fabric. Fire safety codes dictate that the foam in your couch and the insulation in your walls be treated with flame retardants to extend the amount of time a person has to escape a potentially deadly fire. The reality however is that these chemicals are assumed innocent until proven guilty. That is to say, unlike the FDA which has to approve medications for public use before they are allowed on the market, the EPA does not test of approve chemicals before they are used: 

    "But of the 84,000 industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States, only about 200 have been evaluated for human safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because industrial chemicals are presumed safe unless proved otherwise, under the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

    When evidence begins to mount that a chemical endangers human health, manufacturers tend to withdraw it from the market and replace it with something whose effects — and often its ingredients — are unknown. The makeup of the flame retardant Firemaster 550, for instance, is considered a proprietary trade secret. At a recent conference, Stapleton discussed a small, unpublished study in which she fed female rats low doses of Firemaster 550. The exposed mothers’ offspring gained more weight, demonstrated more anxiety, hit puberty earlier and had abnormal reproductive cycles when compared with unexposed offspring — all signs that the chemical disrupts the endocrine system." DASHKA SLATER NYTimes, September, 2012

    Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that these toxic flame retardants do little to actually improve fire safety because the parameters used the in controlled experiment the legislation is based on are completely different than what occurs in the common household.  

    More information can be found at:

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