While the need for better green buildings is an urgent one, it is crucial to consider if the alternatives are any safer for the environment.

Polymeric flame retardant PolyFR, an ingredient in an “eco-friendly” foam plastic insulation, could potentially be far more damaging to human health and the environment according to a new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, in Environmental Science & Technology.

PolyFR production has skyrocketed with the high demand for energy-efficient insulation, replacing hexabromocyclododecane, a notoriously toxic and persistent flame retardant. However, experts are now questioning the presumed safety of PolyFR.

“Since so much PolyFR is being used and so little is known about its release into the environment, we need to have realistic assessments of the potential for PolyFR across its life cycle to harm human and environmental health,” said study co-author Miriam Diamond, a professor at the University of Toronto.

PolyFR is made of two carcinogens, butadiene and styrene, as well as bromine, an ingredient previously known to create overly toxic insulation. Under certain conditions, these chemicals could potentially be released into surrounding communities and the ecosystem during the manufacturing, installation, and disposal of foam insulation.

The report cites a general lack of scrutiny around PolyFR compared to monomeric products and called for more rigorous toxicity and hazard assessments for polymeric products that include not just insulation, but clothing and other consumer products.

It is also important to note that there is a fair share of alternatives that do not require chemical flame retardants such as glass wool or stone wool, two inherently fire retardant materials.

“Making buildings more energy-efficient is a key part of tackling the climate crisis,” said co-author Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “But we need to be careful not to create new health and environmental problems along the way. A ‘green building’ with potentially hazardous insulation isn’t a green building at all.” 

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