What is intrinsically flame retardant polyester?

11 02 2014

Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (I don’t know enough chemistry to figure that one out – can anybody help?), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of these toxic precursors. ( To see our blog post about polyester, click here ).  So I’m just not a fan of synthetics – even polyester.  Just so you know.

To make an intrinsically flame retardant polyester,  the most common method is to add  brominated flame retardants (BFR’s)  to the polymer during the melt phase.   This means the chemicals are “trapped” in the polymer.  Included in this huge class of BFR’s is:

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s):  besides PBDE, the group includes DecaBDE, OctaBDE and PentaBDE (neither Octa nor Penta is manufactured anymore)
  • Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) – also not manufactured anymore
  • Brominated cyclohydrocarbons

Brominated flame retardants are persistent, accumulate in the food chain, and toxic to both humans and the environment and are suspected of causing neurobehavioral effects, endocrine disruption,  cancer and other degenerative diseases.

So now you have a polyester fabric which is made from toxic monomers, which in turn come from crude oil, a precious non-renewable resource. It becomes  “intrinsically flame retarded” by having PBDE’s mixed into the polymer at the melt stage.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to live with that mixture.  Think about it:  It’s generally assumed that PBDE’s in plastics (of all kinds)  volatilize –  but even if they didn’t, each time you sit on your sofa microscopic particles of the fabric are abraded and fall into the dust in your homes, where you can breathe them in.

Many manufacturers advertise the use of “intrinsically flame retardant” polyester fabrics on their sofas.  But why would you need an intrinsically flame retarded fabric on a sofa in your home?  There is no law that says the fabric in a residential setting must have flame retardants (unlike the laws that exist to cover public areas, like offices, airports, hotels, etc.)  Can’t you use a fabric without flame retardants?


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5 responses

11 02 2014
cs sharma

Is there any test method to check the polyester for reclycled of normal.

16 02 2014
O Ecotextiles

No – it’s impossible to tell whether a polymer is made from recycled or virgin polyester because it’s the same chemical composition at the melt stage. So there is no way to tell unless the producer can verify that they have used recycled polyester for the melt; there is a new certifications which can verify the use of recycled poly, called the Global Organic Recycle Standard.

11 02 2014
Corinne Gail Sadowsky, Allied ASID, Certified Green AP

As always, thanks for sharing! Here is an article that we have been following re: chemical treated furnishings. http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Flame-retardant-maker-sues-over-new-Calif-law-5153910.php

29 01 2015
Jon D

well, unfortunately there is such a law that requires flame resistant fabrics in sofas, at least in California, and it is called CB117.

29 01 2015
O Ecotextiles

Hi Jon: You’re right – and we should cover that in more detail. We mentioned it in a blog post last two years ago (https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/fire-retardants-the-new-asbestos/) and now that it has been updated (TB117-2013) many people think they can buy a sofa without FR treatments, when the use is still voluntary on the part of the manufacturer – and the sofa must still pass fire codes so often the fabric is treated.

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