A 2013 UL study revealed that understanding the health impact of products consumers eat, use or interact with on a daily basis is a top priority for them. A focus of this priority is reducing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Specifically, there has been concern about the use of some chemical flame retardants in products within the home. While there is a desire to help ensure products do not negatively life and property, there is also support for safeguarding human health through minimizing the use of potentially hazardous chemicals.

In response, manufacturers, retailers, consumer advocacy groups, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders have been discussing and evaluating potential ways of reducing exposure to certain flame retardants through the reduction of certain chemicals, changes in manufacturing processes or replacement with safer alternatives. But first, we need to understand, through sound science, how people are exposed to flame retardants.

UL sponsored a “Furniture Flammability and Human Health Summit”, where participants concluded that there was a lack of data addressing how people are exposed to flame retardants, what levels of exposure and types of exposure cause adverse health effects and how the aging of those products affects the exposure.

Addressing those concerns, UL’s Human Health research organization is leading an investigation into how to measure and assess the impact of human exposure to flame retardants. The research will focus on the convergence of chemical, environmental and human health safety. The research about chemical flame retardants reinforces the importance of considering not just the safety performance of products but how it impacts other areas of safety, such as human health. Understanding how these exposures happen and the potential health consequences as well as comparing traditional flame retardants against non-chemical alternatives can help optimize the performance and health safety of products.

The research has a number of specific goals, including:

  • Exploring scientific methods for assessing human exposure to flame retardants and other semi-volatile organic chemicals (SVOCs). This will be conducted by measuring concentrations of flame retardant chemicals in air and dust from various furniture and electronic products.
  • Producing data showing how various manufacturing methods and materials may affect flammability and human exposure.
  • Showing how typical background levels of flame retardants and chemicals in the air may affect human health.
  • Identifying methods to compare alternative and safer flame retardant technologies that use green chemistries. Other third-party research has shown that alternative manufacturing methods may achieve fire-resistant standards without needing chemical retardants.
  • Defining parameters for measuring potential chemical exposure risks. This goal addresses a need for consistent and accurate measurement methods for exposure to chemical products. Establishing these will help manage risks and guide future experiments.

With this data set, researchers will then be able to evaluate the potential chemical exposure risks from furniture and other common indoor products.

The research will result in a study UL will seek to publish in peer-reviewed journals and present to stakeholders globally.