April 22, 2012
Which is more important–protecting our homes, or protecting the land upon which our homes are built? The expansion of neighborhoods into wildlands, climate change, and the accumulation of flammable vegetation have made managing fire trickier and more complicated than ever. To prevent complete destruction, each year 300 million kilograms of Brominated Flame Retardants are created, ⅓ of which is utilized by the United States (EPA Yosemite). Fire retardant, “which is approximately 85 percent water, slows the rate of fire spread by cooling and coating the fuels, robbing the fire of oxygen, and slowing the rate of fuel combustion with inorganic salts that change how the fire burns,” helping to mitigate the thousands of forest fires that take place yearly through prevention and response (USDA 2007 Environmental Assessment). However, recent concern has arisen about the impacts that these flame retardants have on the environment. The issue of determining the cost versus benefits of flame retardants has gained the attention of many researchers and scientists, providing us with increasing confidence that the ambiguity will soon be resolved.
The obvious positive to flame retardant usage has to do with the reduction of the damage that the fires cause. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, “every year fires kill more than 3,000 people, injure more than 20,000, and result in property damages exceeding an estimated $11 billion in the US alone.” Aerially-applied fire retardant helps to weaken the intensity and rate of spread of the fires, thereby decreasing risk to the public, as well as the firefighters. The Forest Service works to protect “landscapes, resources, and people,” and fire retardants often are the most effective way to accomplish this. It is clear that flame retardants can be beneficial; however, the question remains: are they detrimental to the environment?
Recently, the use of flame retardants on wildfires has sparked controversy because of its harmful effects on the environment. The main arguments against the use of flame retardants are that they are harmful to aquatic ecosystems, can contaminate surface water and groundwater sources, decrease plant species diversity, affect soil quality, and remain persistent in the environment. There have been studies conducted showing the toxic effects of certain chemicals in flame retardants on fish species, and that soil quality on areas where retardant is dropped can show that the chemicals can remain persistent for days in the environment. There have also been studies showing that flame retardant chemicals add more nitrogen to soil, enhancing weed growth and reducing the competition for other native plant species. The studies behind the use of retardant clearly show that they are an emerging contaminant in the environment, which is why their use is emerging as a hot environmental issue.
Because of these issues, environmentalists and agencies like the U.S. Forest Service have taken action to address concern brought about by flame retardant use. An environmental impact assessment was created in 2007 regarding the impact of flame retardant use since it is required by federal law to provide one according to the National Environmental Policy Act. The report details the impact of retardant drops on the environment and alternatives proposed for their use. As a result, some measures have been taken to avoid dropping retardant 300 feet near water sources and designating areas on a map where retardant is not allowed to be dropped. Despite these solutions provided, people still fight against their use, arguing whether they are truly effective in protecting life and property against wildfires. The choice over flame retardant use should come down to a benefit-cost analysis that determines whether it is beneficial to society and the environment to. Also, alternatives should be considered, including the development of a less toxic retardant that is less contaminating and harmful to the environment to suppress this fire raging over the debate on flame retardants.
Sergio Avelar and Caroline Smith are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.