From a house fire in Falmouth that nearly reached neighboring propane tanks to a devastating blaze in a trailer home in Clinton to the death of an elderly man in a farmhouse fire in Surry, recent home fires throughout the state have served as a sober reminder that Mainers are not exempt from the threat of fire.

This reminder comes as Gov. LePage weighs whether to sign or veto important legislation, recently passed by the Legislature, that could ban the use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture. In my opinion, such a move would remove an important layer of fire protection for the people in this state. Such a move would unnecessarily undo decades worth of progress.

Over the past 50 years, fires in homes have decreased drastically; at the same time, the flammable materials in homes have increased dramatically. The decline in the number of house fires has happened because flame retardants are incorporated into products throughout the home. I know this because I have closely reviewed the research on flame retardants.

As a fire scientist, I have conducted a number of studies, the outcomes of which demonstrate the life-saving role that flame retardants play in protecting consumers from fire. One of the studies that is most relevant to the current debate in this state took place a few years ago, when I performed an independent analysis using fire data pulled from a National Institute of Justice arson study.

The study found that when flame retardants are used in couches, the fire was delayed by six to seven minutes. When foam in the couch contained both a flame retardant and a flame-resistant cover, the fire quickly self-extinguished. And when flame retardants weren’t used in couches, the whole room was consumed by fire within three minutes.

This level of protection is important in Maine, where the state fire marshal reported that there were 2,238 structural fires in 2015 (the latest data available) throughout the state, with 14 home fire fatalities. During that same time, a firefighter was killed in a structural fire.


Thanks to data from the National Fire Protection Association, we also know who is most affected by the devastation of fire: extremely young children and the elderly. This is because in many cases they need more time to escape a fire. They desperately depend on fire safety measures, such as flame retardants, sprinklers and other measures to provide that escape time.

I realize there are many concerns about flame retardants coming from the firefighter community. As a volunteer firefighter, I understand these concerns. But the research has shown that flame retardants may actually reduce the toxic profile of combustion byproducts.

In fact, my colleagues and I saw some of this in a recent published study when we conducted a burn test of U.S. flat-screen televisions containing flame retardants with flat-screen televisions from Brazil and Mexico, where flame retardants are used in a much more limited capacity. The outcome was that combustion gases from the Brazilian TVs contained more carbon monoxide, acrolein and benzene than the U.S. ones. We have seen similar findings in couch burns.

Given all of this information, we should focus on building on the progress that has been made over the years to address the threat of fire. We need companies to continue to innovate and produce the best fire resistant materials, sprinklers and flame retardants that will help us achieve these efforts.

We as citizens also need to focus on making sure firefighters have the best possible equipment and training to help them deal with the range of issues they face both during and after fires occur. We should make it a priority to allocate appropriate funding for these initiatives as well as firefighter health care, as they will go a long way in addressing many of these health-related issues.

We’ve come a long way, but still haven’t gone far enough. I hope Maine will head in the right direction on this issue.

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