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Smoke and mirrors: little guidance, vague codes raise questions for property managers selecting flame retardants.

With fires causing nearly 3,900 civilian deaths and $9,800,000 in property loss in 2004, understanding fire codes and knowing about effective flame retardants is a necessity for builders, property managers and residents alike.

Fire marshals, building officials and architects all play a role in deciding what retardants to use based on state or national fire codes.

Because no uniform code exists and neither the National Fire Protection Agency nor the International Code Council recommend a particular fire retardant, building and property managers must make a decision based on cost, aesthetics and health risks.

Testing the flames

Building managers, while being regulated by local and state fire marshals, are not mandated on how to pick a flame retardant. The majority of the United States relies on one of two codes--the NFPA 5000 or 2000/2003 International Code--to regulate flame retardants.

The codes are not requirements, but instead recommendations. The fire protection association and code council cannot actually recommend a particular retardant because specific materials require specific retardants for minimal burn.

Milosh Puchovsky, the principal fire protection engineer at the fire protection association, said while he couldn't recommend any products, he could, however, institute codes and standards for managers.

"Nothing is banned in the codes," he said. "We specify conditions under what products are called out and what limits are placed on those. There are limitations on how to use things. As long as the material tested meets the classification, you can use it."

Flame retardants are inspected by a third party, usually the Underwriting Laboratory or Factory Mutual, and given a classification test once applied to the material. Materials tested include textile, expanded vinyl plastics and cellular plastics, Puchovsky said.

The test contains five criteria including how rapidly the flame would spread and how much heat or smoke the material gives off.

Decoding the codes

Rich Barr, the fire marshal in Lawrence, Kan., said state codes and sometimes city codes differ slightly, depending on a city's or state's specific needs.

"The only time they vary from city to city is if someone amends the code for their own stuff--you might take out a section of the code and re-write it," he said. "As a general rule, a community uses a model code because they are so similar."

Lawrence, Kan., uses a combination of the 2000 international code and its own model code, adopted in 1997.

No material is banned outright, Barr said as long as it carries a flame spread rating. Locally, even though schools, nursing homes and jails are monitored closely, there are still some issues.

"The biggest challenge is getting them treated at the appropriate level," he said. "As long as you can render it safe, we're ok with it. Local inspections are very strictly enforced."

Barr gave the example of a local restaurant's new awnings as a test of the code. The restaurant had to supply information from the manufacturer showing its flame spread rating. With that, Barr applied the code and rating to decide sprinklers were needed under the awning to make them non-combustible.

"We rely on the code requirement to say what degree things are flame retardant," he said. "We rely on whoever the manufacturer is of the material or treatment to have a listing to certify the product. But we don't care where it comes from."

Selecting the right wall covering or awning for a property is important, but Puchovsky said fire protection should not be a cost effective shortcut.

"There's a wide range of pricing on these products," he said of flame retardants. "Some are less expensive but the basis is just for fire protection quality. You may run into something aesthetically that you want to use."

Health issues and legislation

One chemical found in many flame retardants--PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers)--has been the focus of recent legislation in many states due to health concerns. Europe started the push, banning many retardants in 2004.

In June, Oregon passed House bill SB962, banning two forms of PBDE toxic flame retardants. Deputy State Fire Marshall John Caul said both banned retardants harmed the environment.

PBDEs reduce the flammability in carpet pads and foam cushions and are blended during the manufacturing process. A survey conducted by Washington's ecology office found PBDEs have been linked to pre-natal development problems after they were found in human blood, fat and breast milk. Currently, the Washington legislature is hearing recommendations to phase out all PBDEs.

California Assembly Bill 302 prohibits the future use of PBDEs and OBDEs (octabrominated diphenyl ethers), which affect the chemical makeup of polyurethane foam pads and other furniture and mattresses.

The rush to ban some retardants isn't limited to the West Coast. In Michigan, Public acts 526 and 562 ban two types of PBDEs--penta-BDE and octa-BDE--found in television sets, draperies and construction materials.

Underwriting Laboratory and Factory Mutual--the third party testers--factor in input from commercial and government users for testing purposes. Puchovsky said the codes do not tell consumers what products to use, but how to use them.

So when it comes down to deciding on which flame retardant to use, it all depends on what makes the most sense for the building.

Oregon's fire marshal Caul said: "Right now, all we require is whatever product you're going to use, you must prove a third party tested it and it meets the flame spread rating."
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Title Annotation:ductape
Author:Kaschube, Amanda
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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