Fire retardant

This article is about substances used to fight structure fires and wildfires. For chemical retardants used in textiles, see Flame retardant.

A fire retardant is a substance that reduces flammability of fuels or delays their combustion.[1][2] This includes chemical agents, but may also include substances that work by physical action, such as cooling the fuels, such as fire-fighting foams and fire-retardant gels. Fire retardants may also be coatings applied to an object,[3] such as a spray retardant to prevent Christmas trees from burning.[4] Fire retardants are commonly used in fire fighting.

Home fires damage about 400,000 homes, and cause approximately 7 billion US dollars in direct damage annually in the United States.[5] Because of the importance of prevention, fire retardation has become a very notable industry.

Principles of operation

In general, fire retardants reduce the flammability of materials by either blocking the fire physically or by initiating a chemical reaction that stops the fire.

Physical action

There are several ways in which the combustion process can be retarded by physical action:

Commonly used fire retardant additives include mixtures of huntite and hydromagnesite, aluminium hydroxide, and magnesium hydroxide. When heated, aluminium hydroxide dehydrates to form aluminum oxide (alumina, Al2O3), releasing water vapor in the process. This reaction absorbs a great deal of heat, cooling the material into which it is incorporated. Additionally, the residue of alumina forms a protective layer on the material's surface. Mixtures of huntite and hydromagnesite work in a similar manner. They endothermically decompose releasing both water and carbon dioxide,[6][7] giving fire retardant properties[8][9][10] to the materials in which they are incorporated.

Chemical action


Fire extinguishers

Class A foam is used as a fire retardant in 2.5 gallon [APW] and [CAFS] extinguishers to contain incipient brush fires and grass fires by creating a fire break. Other chemical retardants are capable of rendering class A material and Class B fuels non-flammable and extinguishing class A, class B, and some class D fires. Fire retardant slurries dropped from aircraft are normally applied ahead of a wildfire to prevent ignition, while fire suppression agents are used to extinguish fires.

Surface coating

Objects may be coated with fire retardants. For example, Christmas trees are sprayed with retardants. As a tree dries out it becomes very flammable and a fire-hazard.

Large sky-scrapers use a coating around main structural elements to prevent catastrophic weakening during a fire.

Dormitories in the US are also considering using these products. Since 2000, 109 people have died in fires in dormitories or off-campus student housing across the nation, according to Campus Firewatch, an online newsletter. Campus Firewatch's publisher, Ed Comeau, said a January 2000 fire at Seton Hall University in New Jersey drew attention to the perils of fire on campus. A common area in a Seton Hall dorm caught fire after two students ignited a banner from a bulletin board. The fire quickly spread to furniture and killed three students and injured 58 others.[13]

Forest-fire fighting

A MAFFS-equipped Air National Guard C-130 Hercules drops fire retardant on wildfires in Southern California
Red-dyed line of fire retardant stands out clearly on this Arizona hill, to control the Alambre Fire

Early fire retardants were mixtures of water and thickening agents, and later included borates[14] and ammonium phosphates.

Generally, fire retardants are dropped from aircraft or applied by ground crews around a wildfire's edges in an effort to contain its spread. This allows ground crews time to work to extinguish the fire. However, when needed, retardant can also be dropped directly onto flames to cool the fire and reduce flame length.[15]

Aerial firefighting

Aerial firefighting is a method to combat wildfires using aircraft. The types of aircraft used include fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Smokejumpers and rappellers are also classified as aerial firefighters, being delivered by parachute from a variety of fixed-wing aircraft, or rappelling from helicopters. Chemicals used to fight fires may include water, water enhancers, or specially-formulated fire retardants.[16]


Most clothing intended for children in the United States is required to pass fire-retardant tests for safety reasons.

Home furniture

In many locations mattresses are now treated with fire retardant or built with fire-resistant material. Many new foams self-extinguish. This is the most common use of chemical fire retardancy.


Wildfire retardants

Fire retardants applied to wildfires are usually a mixture of water and chemicals designed to wet the area as well as chemically retard a fire's progression through vegetation. Typically it is colored[17] so that the application area can be seen from the air. New gel-based retardants which meet NFPA Standard 1150 are being introduced into use. These are dyed other colors to differentiate them from the traditional red retardant. The gels and their dyes are designed to biodegrade naturally.[18] Phos-Chek is a brand of long-term retardant currently approved for wildland fire use.[19]

Environmental concerns

Some fire retardants contain chemicals that are potentially dangerous to the environment, such as PBDEs. Fire retardants used in airplanes and fire resistant objects such as carpets accumulate in humans. (see PBDE#Health concerns).

Forest fire retardants that are used are generally considered non-toxic,[20] but even less-toxic compounds carry some risk when organisms are exposed to large amounts.[21] Fire retardants used in firefighting can be toxic to fish and wildlife as well as firefighters[22] by releasing dioxins and furans when halogenated fire retardants are burned during fires,[23] and drops within 300 feet of bodies of water are generally prohibited unless lives or property are directly threatened.[24] The US Forest Service is the governing agency that conducts research and monitors the effect of fire retardants on wildland systems in the US.[25][26]

It was found that marine bacteria manufacture a non-synthetic source of chemically identical PBDEs that are toxic to the environment.[27]

See also


  1. "BLM Wyoming Wildland Fire Glossary". 2008-06-18. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  2. Coford Glossary "Fire Retardant" Archived February 8, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. "Zinsser Glossary". Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  4. "Fire Retardant Kills Rhode Island's Christmas Tree". Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  5. "U.S. home structure fires". National Fire Protection Association. Retrieved 2007-08-22.
  6. Hollingbery, LA; Hull TR (2010). "The Thermal Decomposition of Huntite and Hydromagnesite - A Review". Thermochimica Acta. 509 (1-2): 1–11. doi:10.1016/j.tca.2010.06.012.
  7. Hollingbery, LA; Hull TR (2012). "The Thermal Decomposition of Natural Mixtures of Huntite and Hydromagnesite". Thermochimica Acta. 528: 45–52. doi:10.1016/j.tca.2011.11.002.
  8. Hollingbery, LA; Hull TR (2010). "The Fire Retardant Behaviour of Huntite and Hydromagnesite - A Review". Polymer Degradation and Stability. 95 (12): 2213–2225. doi:10.1016/j.polymdegradstab.2010.08.019.
  9. Hollingbery, LA; Hull TR (2012). "The Fire Retardant Effects of Huntite in Natural Mixtures with Hydromagnesite". Polymer Degradation and Stability. 97 (4): 504–512. doi:10.1016/j.polymdegradstab.2012.01.024.
  10. Hull, TR; Witkowski A; Hollingbery LA (2011). "Fire Retardant Action of Mineral Fillers". Polymer Degradation and Stability. 96 (8): 1462–1469. doi:10.1016/j.polymdegradstab.2011.05.006.
  11. "PHOS-CHeK D75 Fire Retardants" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-11-20.
  12. "How do flame retardants work?". European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) and European Flame Retardants Association (EFRA). Retrieved 12 Feb 2010.
  13. Amy Farnsworth (2007-08-06). "New coatings cut risk of a dorm fire". The Boston Globe.
  14. US 2858895, Connell, George A. (inventor), "Methods and compositions for controlling fires", published November 4, 1958.
  15. "Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation Operations 2007, Chapter 17" (PDF). National Interagency Fire Center. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-08-31.
  16. "USDA Forest Service Wildland Fire Chemicals". Retrieved 2008-11-13.
  17. US 6676858, Vandersall, Howard L. & Kegeler, Gary H., "Colorant liquid, method of use, and wildfire retardant liquids containing the same", published January 13, 2004.
  18. "CDF Tankers Test Dropping New Colored Retardants" (PDF). California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. August 27, 2005. Retrieved 2007-08-22.
  19. "Wildland Fire Chemical Product Information". Retrieved 2008-11-13.
  20. "Phos-Chek MSDS" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-11-14.
  21. "Bell, T., Tolhurst, K., and Wouters, M. Effects of the fire retardant Phos-Chek on vegetation in eastern Australian heathlands. International Journal of Wildland Fire. 14(2) 199–211.".
  22. "". Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  23. "Effect of Fire Retardant on Water Quality" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-11-17.
  24. William Yardley (November 15, 2008). "In Fighting Wildfires, Concerns About Chemicals". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-26.
  25. "USDA Forest Service Wildland Fire Chemical Systems". Retrieved 2008-11-13.
  26. "Wildland Fire Chemical Products Toxicity and Environmental Concerns" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-11-13.
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