From apparel designed to protect firefighters and military personnel in the heat of battle, to bedding and furniture for the most vulnerable of citizens, flame resistant nonwovens can be classified among the most important products the industry produces.
That notion is perhaps why a series of articles discussing the prevalence of toxic flame-retardants in American homes, published in the Chicago Tribune this May, reignited debate on regulatory reform and flammability standards.
According to Nonwovens Industry “Capitol Comments” columnists Jessica Franken, director of government affairs with INDA (Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry) and Dawnee Giammittorio, associate director of government affairs, INDA, the Tribune investigation alleged that aggressive lobbying from flame retardant manufacturers has led to widespread use of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in upholstered furniture and other household products, despite their limited effectiveness and link to cancer and other health problems.
“The articles noted that weaknesses in the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) have limited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to address these concerns, but that efforts to revamp the chemical safety law have been stalled in Congress for years.”
A bipartisan group of senators has urged the EPA to move forward with current efforts to protect American families from PBDEs. In turn, representatives from the EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have asked lawmakers for greater authority when it comes to regulating chemicals, saying the TSCA places too great a burden on the agency to show a chemical should be regulated.
The CPSC’s efforts to finalize a 2008 proposed upholstered furniture flammability standard have been hindered in part by the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA), which requires the commission to make a series of “very detailed and onerous findings” before a final rule can be issued, according to Inez Tenenbaum, chairwoman of the CPSC, who called on Congress to amend the FFA.
“Despite the increased interest in TSCA reform and furniture flammability, it remains difficult to predict when either initiative might move forward because of the November elections and hyper-partisan gridlock in Washington,” say Franken and Giammittorio. “Even still, the growing call to move away from toxic flame retardants, which EPA and CPSC cannot effectively regulate, should lead to an increase in the demand for safe alternatives, presenting opportunities for companies that produce and market nonwoven barrier fabrics.”
Federal standards for flammability (open flame) of mattress sets are stipulated in 16 CFR Part 1633. Passed in 2006, this regulation opened burgeoning opportunities for the nonwovens industry.
Keith Martin, vice president, Industrial Division, Precision Custom Coating (PCC), which does business in the bedding, furniture and automotive markets, says new opportunities might be on the horizon with a proposed 1634 regulation that would put more stringent flame resistant regulations in place for top-of-bed materials, such as pillows, sheets and comforters.
“I think the driver there is California, as it was with the mattress regulation,” he notes. For example, California Technical Bulletins 129 and 133 cover increased standards for mattresses and furniture, respectively.
“If California adopts that regulation and it comes to fruition, then the nation will most likely too, shortly thereafter,” Martin says. “If that happens there are some huge opportunities for the FR (flame retardant) business.”
In the automotive market, another large segment within the FR category, different specifications have to be met based on the component used (e.g., propellant for airbags, carpet under-padding, insulation, etc.). FMVSS 302 (Upholstery) is a horizontal flame test that measures the burning rate of interior materials when subjected to a 1.5-inch flame.
One noteworthy product launch this year came from National Nonwovens, which introduced Ultra-ProTechtor, a fire-blocker for aircraft seating dress covers. Ultra-ProTechtor is a lightweight nonwoven flame barrier that utilizes Ultem polymer and newly developed Ultem fibers by Sabic Innovative Plastics. Initially designed for the Aerospace Market, Ultra-ProTechtor can also benefit other markets that involve modes of transportation requiring fire-blockers.
The enhanced construction of Ultra-ProTechtor provides increased stability along with significant property improvements, including: low smoke density and toxicity, water repellency, low heat release, high puncture resistance and improved fire-blocking protection at a lighter weight. In addition, it has excellent seam, tear and tensile strength resulting in less stretch and is formaldehyde free. Ultra-ProTechtor was also tested and met FAR25-853-A and C amendments 25-116-appendex F part II by two independent U.S. laboratories.
Leigh Fibers offers SafeLeigh flame retardant shoddy, a high-quality fiber that can aid in meeting automotive performance and fire-retardant standards. SafeLeigh is a custom blend of 100% recycled materials, primarily fire-retardant aramids. It can help meet requirements for flame retardancy without the expense (or drying time) of chemicals, the company says.
Protective apparel also continues to be a promising segment of the flame retardants business, according to executives at Leigh Fibers, which is working with some of its suppliers to recycle used uniforms, turnout gear and forestry service clothing that is worn out. By cleaning and recycling these materials and incorporating them into new grades, the company has adopted a full-cycle use of fibers.
“By way of volume, it’s a growing market,” Martin says of the protective apparel sector. “A lot of that is related to a greater push toward safety in the work environment.”
According to Martin, the challenges in the flame retardants business are the same as in other sectors: economic pressures and foreign competition, most notably.“Those are always challenges,” he says.
Differentiating yourself in a competitive marketplace may involve a few things. For PCC, Martin says the company focuses on quality, being quick to market with certain items, identifying core capabilities and matching those up with needs in certain marketplaces.
“A lot of vendors show us new technologies,” he says. “It’s important to match up what’s going to work for us, what’s most efficient and cost effective, while still addressing and going above and beyond regulations. In a lot of these FR markets the liability is huge and you don’t want to cut it close. You want to be above and beyond.”
Overall, Martin says some of the flame resistant technologies, like Kevlar and Nomex high performance protective apparel fibers, are becoming commodity items. With more manufacturers, the cost of those items has started to come down, opening up some new markets for those types of fibers.