Polymers make our lives better in thousands of ways, but those that have carbon and hydrogen monomers come with a significant caveat – they are highly flammable. What’s more, when polymers decompose, they generate heat and flammable gases that can further fuel a fire. It’s a solvable problem, though. Scientists have developed numerous flame-resistant polymers, and they’re incorporated into many of the products, such as fire-resistant toys and sleepwear, that we rely on for child safety.
Federal regulations lay out very specific requirements for fire-retardant properties in children’s pajamas.Consumer product testing is also strictly regulated, and federal Children’s Sleepwear Regulations describe detailed structures for how manufacturers must test their products before marketing them.
Fire-retardant polymers in children’s toys and clothing can either be part of the construction of the product, or incorporated as a treatment to completed products. Generally, flame-retardant polymers work by cooling, formation of a protective layer, dilution of fuel sources or a chemical reaction during the phase when heat turns the solid polymer into a gas. When polymers break down – as in when a material catches fire – the decomposition can generate additional heat. Some fire-resistant polymers, such as hydrated tri-alumina or magnesium hydroxide, reduce the amount of heat released during decomposition. Another way in which these polymers inhibit flammability is through dilution of the fuel source. When flame-retardant polymers decompose, inert monomers dilute the flammable components, reducing the likelihood of ignition. Other types of flame retardants create a protective layer when they decompose, and that layer effectively keeps the combustible gases produced separate from the oxygen flames need.
Still, other flame-retardant additives contain free radicals that get released when heated, chemically modifying the combustion process, decreasing the heat produced and reducing the flammable gases produced during decomposition. Companies that produce consumer products – especially those intended for use by children – understand the bar is high in manufacturing products that are both safe and effective.
Polymer testing helps answer questions about the composition, efficacy and safety of products that rely on flame-retardant polymers. Although flame-retardant polymers have proven effective in helping to inhibit flammability in a number of consumer products, some consumers and experts in the health community have voiced concerns over how these compounds may affect long-term health. Consequently, scientists continue to look for new types of fire-retardant polymers, such as nano-composites. With the versatility of polymers and plenty of human ingenuity, flame-retardant polymers can continue to be valuable assets in keeping children safer in their own homes.