Fire Retardant: Is it ACTUALLY toxic?

Fire retardant sprays are undeniably effective in preventing the spread of fire and reducing the flammability of objects. But, is there a trade-off when spraying materials and forests with retardants to save them from fire damage? Could we put ourselves and nature at risk from toxic chemicals?

Fire retardant sprays – both for use as coatings and as drops in a wildfire – do come with a toxicity warning. The compounds within the liquid are hazardous to human health, although there aren’t too many concerns with brief and minimal exposure. There is also an issue of possible toxicity related to wildlife when fighting wildfires.

While this sounds a little scary at first, it is important to remember that fire retardants come in different forms. General use products aren’t going to do much harm and we’re unlikely to get in the way of anything more severe.

So, let’s look at some of the different uses of fire retardants and how these products could pose a health or environmental risk. Before that, let’s look at why these substances are so helpful.

What Do Fire Retardants Do To Protect Us?

 Products with the right chemical coatings and protective measures have a level of flame or fire retardancy.

We look at this as a strong indication that a material is safe to use and perhaps a better alternative to more flammable substances.

For example, in other articles on this site, I look at the flammability versus the fire retardancy of materials like polyester and wool.

Both are flammable to a point but are also considered fire retardant due to their specific properties.

A flame retardant product is one used to coat everyday items to make them less likely to burn in a fire. The flames from a house fire won’t set them alight in quite the same way.

There may be that slow burn that eventually self-extinguishes, but the material won’t be quite so hazardous.

A good example of this is the coating used on textiles and upholstery to stop them from going up in flames in an instant.

This doesn’t mean that your chemically treated sofa won’t burn, and there is still a level of flammability, but the risk is greatly reduced.

Fire Retardant Products For Home And Wildfire Prevention

Then there are fire retardants that you can buy and use as physical products to improve the fire resistance of property. In a similar vein, there are also more industrial fire retardants used in the control of major fires.

Both are similar in their make-up and impact, with some important differences. Both have the potential to slow the rate of a fire and save lives.

However, there are still health concerns, as you will see below.

Fire Retardant Sprays For Protection At Home

You can buy fire retardant and fireproofing substances such as gels, powders to mix with water, and as a ready-to-use spray.

These are great for DIY and construction projects where you need a high level of protection against potential fires.

The sprays can seep into the material and provide a protective barrier. These are great for timber structures that would otherwise burn with ease on contact with flames.

You may need to add additional coats over time to make sure the protection is at the highest standard. But, this shouldn’t be too difficult with the right solution.

There isn’t too much to these fire retardant sprays as the formulas are quite basic. There is a lot of water in there, which makes sense when water is such an effective tool in firefighting.

This will create a strong barrier where the coating fights the flames and evaporates before the fire reaches the wood.

Additional materials such as salts and fertilizers work to alter the way the fire burns and keep it at bay.

What Are Fire Retardants For Wildfires?

If you have ever watched the news during a serious wildfire, you will see helicopters dropping large quantities of substances onto the landscape in the path of the fire.

These are fire retardants on a more heavy-duty scale. The aim here is to ensure that the fire can’t spread too far and therefore minimize damage to the forest and any surrounding inhabited areas.

These materials are more intense and long-lasting in the hope that the fire will burn differently and that firefighters will extinguish it before it spreads further.

The chemical makeup of these substances is similar to that of the smaller-scale sprays for at-home use.

Typically, they are about 85% water, 10% fertilizer, and 5% additional ingredients.

Those fertilizer elements are minimal compared to the water content but work to alter the burn rate. Most include regulated ammonium phosphate fertilizers.

That additional 5% of ingredients comprises of aspects like colorant, thickeners, and stabilizers. That colorant is an important detail as it makes the spray more visible from the air.

Responders can see where the retardant is in effect and where they need to make another drop.

Are Fire Retardants Safe To Use?

Yes and no. There are some serious pros and cons to spraying buildings and landscapes with fire retardants.

Naturally, we want the best means of fire prevention possible when there are wildfires and structural fires.

If these retardants can stop the spread effectively, then they can protect natural landscapes, properties, and even lives.

So, it is easy to see why fire services are so quick to spray areas with these chemicals in an emergency.

However, they are still chemicals, and there are concerns that they can have long-term health risks for humans and wildlife.

The Risk Of Fire Retardants To Humans

With humans, there are connections between fire and flame retardants and damage to the endocrine, immune, nervous, and reproductive systems.

There are, therefore, concerns about the impact of these coatings on everyday items and clothing. If you spray these chemicals onto the exterior of a home or use them to treat fabrics, there is the risk of leeching and fumes.

Many say that the risks are minimal with infrequent, small-scale exposure, especially when users wash their hands after use.

As for the more industrial drops of fire retardant, these may be more hazardous.

Still, the Forest Service says there is no predicted risk for anyone accidentally splashed with the substance.

The Risk Of Fire Retardant To Wildlife And The Environment

The concern for wildlife is a little different. Again, it is all about weighing up the pros and cons.

The Forest Service talks about a minimal toxicity risk to wildlife in contact with the fire retardant. There is the possibility that this substance will land on animals that are in the forest fleeing the fire.

Or, they might mistake the liquid for water and try to drink it. It is hard to say that the risk is minimal to all wildlife as surely toxicity to a squirrel is not the same as that to a bear.

It is also questionable how much research has been undertaken to determine irritations on contact with skin.

A bigger problem comes from any salts and ammonia running off into water supplies.

This is a problem in the farming industry as it is. Fertilizers run off the soil and into rivers, contaminating water supplies and making it difficult to sustain river biodiversity.

A stream in the center of a large wildfire may suffer from fire retardant run-off.

Still, it is easy to argue that a little river contamination is preferable to the whole forest and neighboring community going up in flames.

Are Fire Retardant Sprays Flammable?

It isn’t just the toxicity risk that we have to think about when it comes to these fire-retardant products.

What about the risks of storing these fertilizer-based products? After all, fertilizer is not a fire-safe material.

One assumption about those at-home sprays is that they may be flammable in their original form. Is this the case?

Thankfully, there aren’t too many risks if you have a container of this spray in your garage.

For a start, the high water content balances out the chemicals and fertilizers so it won’t go up in flames. Also, this isn’t a pressurized system where you have to worry about the gas within a canister.

Fire Retardants Are Worth The Minimal Risks For The Increased Fire Safety.

Fire retardants, in all their forms, come with some health risks.

There are concerns about frequent exposure to items coated in these substances and what might happen when in contact with industrial fire retardants in a wildfire.

However, fire retardants are important substances for reducing the flammability of our homes and possessions.

The composition of the spray and its interaction with flammable materials are effective for reducing the spread of a fire and protecting a home.

No fire retardant material will ever be 100% fireproof regardless of the spray used or the intrinsic construction of the material.

For example, polyester is fire retardant but will melt at some point. We just have to take comfort in the fact that these materials do offer greater protection when it counts.