The architecture firm Perkins+Will’s provocative report, Healthy Environments: Strategies for Avoiding Flame Retardants in the Built Environment, advises readers to avoid building products that contain flame retardant chemicals. While the report tries to make a scientific case for its recommendations, its analysis has several significant weaknesses that readers should understand and consider. Deficiencies with the report are summarized below, and a more detailed scientific review is available here.

  1. Perkins+Will ignores the proven benefits of flame retardants and does not address the fire safety implications of removing flame retardants from the built environment. Flame retardants provide an important layer of fire protection by stopping or delaying the onset or spread of fires. By doing so, they can reduce the extent of a fire; the amount of smoke generated in a fire; and increase valuable safety time for building occupants escape a fire. Any diminishment in fire protection could be dangerous for building occupants and first responders.

  2. Perkins+Will fails to consider real-world exposure when urging against the use of flame retardants. The report argues that the mere presence of flame retardants equals a health risk. While the report’s authors cite outcomes from high-dose animal studies to make their point, they do not discuss whether and how the high exposure levels in the animal studies relate to potential exposure in the built environment. It is a generally recognized scientific principle that an analysis of risk should include both the toxicity of a chemical AND the potential for exposure to it. Overlooking exposure and focusing solely on hazard is overly simplistic.

  3. Perkins + Will overlooks many government risk assessments that carefully examined hazard, exposure, and level of risk associated with various flame retardants. The European Chemicals Bureau, European Food Safety Authority, Environment Canada, and Health Canada have evaluated uses of many flame retardants and found little or no concern with potential health or environmental effects from current uses. These readily accessible, publicly available assessments are completely ignored by the report’s authors.

  4. Perkins+Will presents information from scientific studies with provocative findings without addressing the studies limitations. In several cases, Perkins+Will fails to present and consider the limitations of a study as clearly expressed by the study’s authors for the reader’s consideration. Important issues such as whether the results of an animal study have relevance for humans, or whether a study on one chemical can be extrapolated to other chemicals should not be ignored.

  5. Perkins+Will generalizes the results of studies on a single flame retardant chemical to all flame retardant chemicals. Flame retardants are a group of chemically diverse substances that serve a common function. It is not scientifically justifiable to attribute the toxicological profile of one substance to other substances simply because they serve the same function.

It is disappointing that the Perkins+Will report presents an incomplete view of flame retardants in the built environment. Architects and designers make important decision that can have significant impacts on a building’s fire safety and thus the safety of a building’s occupants and users. Those decisions should be supported by a more complete and scientifically rigorous analysis.

» View a more detailed scientific review

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