What is Fire Retardant?

Holly Collins

Almost any material can be treated with fire retardant solution to make it less combustible and harder to burn. Fire retardant sprays and additives are available for virtually any surface including fabrics, wood, electronic components, and paper. Fire retardant products are widely used to make a variety of goods less likely to burn.

Fire retardant materials are often used in the building of skyscrapers.
Fire retardant materials are often used in the building of skyscrapers.

Fire retardant materials are often used in the construction of skyscrapers and hotels. They can be added to paint, applied to furniture, and incorporated into mattresses. Some building codes require their use.

Fire retardants are used by fire fighters when battling forest fires.
Fire retardants are used by fire fighters when battling forest fires.

Fire retardants can work by forming a protective non-flammable layer around an otherwise combustible material physically preventing it from igniting. They also work by responding to extreme heat with a chemical reaction releasing water vapors to dilute combustible gases. Diluting flammable gases can act to prevent a fire from igniting or slow the burn rate of an existing one. They can also create a layer of carbon char when something is burning. Carbon char is very flame resistant, so its presence can prevent flames from spreading on an existing burn or stop it completely.

Fire fighters use fire retardants when battling forest fires by dropping them from airplanes or spraying them on the ground. A fire retardant dropped from a plane serves to cool large burning areas and reduce the height of flames. They can also be used to create fire breaks containing a fire and its ability to spread.

Race car drivers and fire fighters wear suits made from highly fire retardant fabrics. These suits have extremely high melting points and can withstand intense heat and exposure without igniting. Fire resistant suits are also used in some military applications.

Fire retardants were developed in the 60’s and regularly used on products needing to meet high safety standards like children’s apparel, and car seats. A class of fire retardant solutions called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDE’s, safety was questioned in the early 2000’s. Studies showed that PBDE’s were being absorbed and stored in fatty tissue but not broken down and expelled from the body.

This lead to accusations that PBDE was causing prenatal birth defects, adversely affecting brain development in children, and were possible carcinogenic. Proponents of these theories are currently working to ban this class of chemicals from further use. PBDEs have also been accused of having a negative impact on wildlife, showing up around the globe in a wide variety of animal species.

Fire fighters use fire retardant to help them battle forest fires.
Fire fighters use fire retardant to help them battle forest fires.

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Discussion Comments


If you are going to be doing anything with fire, or even if you just want to be safe in the kitchen, you can have a homemade fire retardant.

All you have to do is have a lot of baking soda on hand and if something catches on fire, you can smother it in the baking soda. This is what you're supposed to do with grease fires in particular because adding water to them can make them much worse.

I just buy baking soda in bulk and keep it in an ice cream container in the pantry.

I also keep a tub in the garage for when people are messing around with the welding tools.


@irontoenail - You can hardly blame people for having fire retardant chemicals in their houses though. If you had a choice between buying fire retardant curtains or ordinary curtains, which would you choose?

Most people don't think about how many chemicals go into making day to day items.

I don't believe in worrying over every little man made object and whether or not it is going to end up causing cancer or whatever. But it really sucks when something like this happens, when you find out something you took for granted like fire retardant coatings is leaching poison everywhere that could really affect you.

The agencies that are supposed to guard against this kind of thing ought to be doing a better job.


I had never heard that about PBDEs showing up in different environments and in human tissues. When I looked it up though, apparently the amount of these chemicals found in the average household is enough to cause infertility.

And you know, fertility rates have been dropping for years, with so many couples being unable to conceive. People blame it on couples deciding to have kids too late, but that doesn't account for all of it.

When you think about the amount of fire retardant clothing and paint and so on you probably have around the house right now, it's no wonder fertility rates are dropping.

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