No Design Legislation

Opposing interior design legislation everywhere

Fire Retardant Codes Cause More Harm Than Good?

Some building codes not only do not protect the public as well as we would like to think they do, but may actually result in practices that do more harm to the public than they prevent.

The folks who are trying to legislate most designers out of business using largely health, safety, and welfare claims don’t seem to realize that some of the very building codes they tout as so necessary for designers to know are likely creating bigger problems than they are actually solving, that the testing and standards required by code aren’t cut and dried, black-and-white, complete solutions to anything with no downsides.

Who is teaching designers to actually think and learn for themselves? God knows it’s not the design schools. The design education process that is being promoted as the be-all and end-all pathway to learning how to be a designer and keep people safe in the built environment largely produces people who blindly follow what they are taught – by nonscientists, I might add – about codes and testing procedures as if it’s all the gospel truth, and as if following these guidelines is going to guarantee anyone’s safety, when in fact, it just ain’t so easy or clearcut.

Certainly this appears to be the thinking behind a lot of the push to legislate our profession as extensively as ASID and company are working hard to do.

Many building materials and products used in interiors, including the foams used in furniture construction, are required by the building code to be treated with fire retardant chemicals – even those products used in the residential environment. In addition, many fabrics are required to be treated with these chemicals, including clothing and bed linens, and all textiles used in the commercial environment.

There is a tremendous and growing body of evidence that these chemicals accumulate in the body and cause a number of major medical problems including cancers and neurological, reproductive, thyroid, and developmental problems, as well as genetic mutations. Studies have shown that many marine mammals and household pets are dying as a result of the accumulation of these chemicals, and children in particular are becoming seriously ill as a result – many more than would likely die in the fires these products are intended to mitigate. It is inevitable that many of the increasing medical problems that we are all experiencing in this day and age are a result of these widespread practices as well.

Obviously, this is a major public health issue of incalculable proportions that affects not only people living today, but will affect future generations because of the genetic mutations and impossibility of getting rid of these chemicals. And yet, because these products are actually required by the building codes, we either cannot buy products for buildings or interiors without these chemicals already impregnated, or we as designers and architects must actually actively and deliberately specify them separately.

Yes, we are actually required by law to use products in your homes and businesses that are known to put the health and safety of every person who ever enters a building at clear and obvious risk every single day.

This is particularly ironic in light of the arguments that ASID and other pro-legislation groups are putting forth about how designers who go through their mandated educational, experience, and testing pathway are specially trained to protect the health and safety of the public, how this particular training pathway is necessary for us to know how to do that, and how no one who doesn’t have this particular cocktail of experiences could possibly know anything about protecting the public. This is one of their primary arguments for why interior designers should be licensed – but they are obviously basing the requirements on “knowledge” and codes that actually cause considerably more harm to people and the environment than it could ever prevent!

And what’s more, the harm resulting from these chemicals is happening even without them burning. Once they do ignite in a fire (and eventually, they will still burn), then even more toxic chemicals are released into the environment. All burning materials do this, but when you burn nasties like these compounds, you get even more and nastier gasses released into the air.

I wonder how many interior designers actually know anything at all about these issues, especially those who do have professional training? I know that I was certainly never taught about them in design school at either of the two prominent schools that I attended. Sure, they taught us about the codes requiring these chemicals and testing procedures, but definitely not about the hazards inherent in them (or how the tests for flammability don’t actually translate to real life conditions and are therefore themselves invalid as predictors of safety, but that’s a topic for a separate post).

And needless to say, this sure as heck isn’t a very green practice, either – and yet we are required to even apply these toxic chemicals to the most green of materials.

Admittedly, building codes are imperfect, obviously, and at best represent a best attempt to do what is humanly possible to mitigate risks, and as such, they do have value in general, in addition to having the force of law that anyone who wants to build anything must obey. Issues such as this do also point out clearly just how flawed the codes often are, and how attempts to solve one problem, especially by trying to legislate it, often creates an even bigger one in its place.

Please read this article for more details about these chemicals, the problems they cause, and what designers should consider to try to get around these issues. Scroll down the post midway to access this content.

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April 17, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. But But but I thought you said interior designers really do not do anything to harm the public….gosh what will we do?

    Comment by Michael Dudek | May 1, 2009 | Reply

    • Mike, as you well know, what’s mandated by law isn’t exactly in our control. Obviously, the law itself is the problem here, whether or not interior designers are involved. The issue is the products themselves, not who specifies them. This crap is sitting on furniture store floors all over the country, being purchased directly by consumers who have no clue they are being poisoned by their furniture.

      It is very ironic, however, that something intended to save lives in fact causes probably more harm than it might ever prevent, and that we as designers are required to actively specify it in many situations, even when we *know* it harms people.

      What will we do? Obviously we will need to find alternatives and work to change the law, the testing procedures, etc., as necessary.

      And we need to educate the students that just because something’s in the building code, doesn’t mean it’s a good policy – and to learn to think things like this through for themselves.

      Comment by Hoechstetter Interiors | May 11, 2009 | Reply

      • First the hazards of decaBCE’s & pbde’s are well known so if you think your flaming red herring is a revelation you need to wake up earlier. OUR government is actually working to correct the problem. You see our government is actually concerned about our health, safety and welfare. And I do teach my students that virtually every synthetic material has potential drawbacks. If it is made by man chances are it is potentially harmful to man. I teach them to go into the world, as professional interior designers or otherwise, with their eyes wide open. If it is harmful to humans and/or the environment they are taught to seek other solutions that satisfy the demands of the litany of codes, rules and regulations that will confront them. If it is unsafe, they must find a solution that is. If it is not healthy they will find a solution that is. And most importantly and less tangible, particularly for the angry decorator crowd, if it does not improve the physiological or psychological welfare of the end user(s) then it is incumbent on them to find a solution that does. Because that is what professional interior designers do.

        Comment by Michael Dudek | May 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. Who is teaching designers to actually think and learn for themselves? God knows it’s not the design schools.

    Who is teaching the decorators how to do research. Lord knows it’s not HGTV.

    Comment by Mike Dudek | May 8, 2009 | Reply


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