Tackling the hidden risk from building with wood
Image credit: Photovs/Dreamstime
Timber is growing in popularity as a sustainable construction material, but its increasing use is focusing attention on the need for fire retardants that don’t pose a threat to human health.
The UK saw record temperatures this summer, causing widespread wildfires and droughts. This extreme weather could become a regular seasonal occurrence, affecting us all in years to come. Alongside the looming threat from fire, to make matters worse the fire retardants we use to protect building materials often contain dangerous toxic chemicals.
Pollution from fire retardants is a major safety risk that cannot be ignored. Construction professionals must be made aware of the dangers to help protect lives and limit the environmental impacts of these harmful chemicals. This means ensuring only the safest, most sustainable options are specified for projects.
Toxic pollution is a particularly pertinent issue in timber construction, where fire retardants are commonly used to protect wood. While timber is an attractive material thanks to lower embedded carbon and speedier build times, the pollution from fire retardants is an environmental concern that needs to be addressed.
Thankfully, as the construction industry continues to grow, further research and technological innovations are helping to increase the availability of non-toxic, safer fire retardants. More environmentally friendly products will help to ensure the chemicals we are putting into building materials are safe, helping assure a greener, cleaner future for construction. Currently, however, there is still a long way to go.
Toxic chemicals in fire retardants can find their way into the environment at different stages in the lifecycle of timber products. When treated timber is produced, disposed of, or exposed to fire and water, harmful substances can be released into the environment. Once discharged, they can cause extreme health concerns like hormone disruptions, infertility and cancer. Some fire retardants are particularly robust and can persist in the environment, lingering for decades.
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this hazard. As tighter restrictions on building materials have come into play, there is a drive in the construction industry to develop low-toxicity fire retardants. With safer products coming to market, developers will have a choice between ‘risky wood that burns’ and fire-resistant, non-toxic alternatives. As a result, we can build more sustainably using timber, and safely thanks to low-toxicity fire retardants. This is all provided we continue to prioritise awareness around the dangers of toxic fire retardants and improve knowledge about building materials.
Timber construction has come a long way in the last decade and presents a more sustainable future for the construction industry. We recently saw the completion of London’s tallest mass timber office building – the Black & White Building on Shoreditch High Street - and the world’s tallest timber building in Milwaukee. Thanks to advanced construction technology and improved building methods, this versatile material now has applications in both residential and commercial projects. A range of manufactured timber products with different attributes are now available, some of which are incredibly strong and inexpensive to produce.
With its low costs, green credentials and great abundance, timber has the potential to become a preferred mainstream building material across the globe in years to come. In fact, we are already starting to see this transition - according to the US National Association of Home Builders, 90 per cent of new homes built in 2019 in the USA were wood frame. If this happens, we must be prepared to defend against the danger of fire, keeping in mind the issue of toxic fire retardants. Harmful ingredients, like halogenated chemicals, must be omitted from fire retardants so that we can continue to increase the fire resistance of timber used for building.
We are in a race against time to develop more sustainable, environmentally friendly building methods. Ongoing R&D, along with technological advancements, is providing new solutions to environmental concerns in construction such as toxic pollution, and low-toxicity fire retardants are an important example of this work. We have already seen encouraging progress, with some harmful chemical ingredients phased out in Europe, including brominated and boron-based fire-retardant chemicals.
Meanwhile, another recent change brought about by the Swedish chemical tax has helped to reduce instances of harmful fire retardants in European products. In time, further restrictions enforced by legislation will help to remove the remaining dangerous chemicals from manufacturing processes completely.
Fire retardants are an essential part of fire protection systems and without them, lives are put at risk. As the world of construction evolves and timber construction moves to the fore, fire safety must become a key focus for architects, engineers and construction workers. This means educating themselves on and acknowledging the complete lifecycles of building materials, fully understanding how to get the most out of them without sacrificing safety.
When it comes to saving lives, there is no excuse for taking shortcuts. Unfortunately, in our industry, tight margins for project costs and timelines often limit the appetite for change. We must break through these restrictive factors by continuing to spread awareness about fire safety and toxic pollution to ensure we do not condemn ourselves in the long run. Human health needs to be a priority above all else in the future of construction if we are to make it the safe, sustainable, environmentally friendly industry it needs to be.
Ian King is COO at fire retardant technology company Zeroignition.
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