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Recognizing the negative effects of these past situations, modern technology has completely rewritten the book on fire retardants. Since the late 1990s, a new breed of non-toxic, non-carcinogenic and environmentally safe fire retardants have entered the market. This newer technology uses safe, non-toxic, food-grade materials in their makeup. While these products are generally classified as fire retardants, they are actually called “fire reactants.” What is the difference? Fire retardants in their finished form for the particular application in which they are used do not change. For instance, once a fire-retardant paint is applied, it will always remain the same, even in a fire. While it burns much slower than a regular paint and may offer some additional protection, its basic form and chemical composition do not change.
Fire reactants on the other hand do change. When a fire reactant is applied to an object, it is “dormant” until heat and/or fire is introduced. At that instant, the reactant goes through a rapid chemical transformation wherein the physical characteristics change completely. This change creates a new compound that in turn shields whatever it is applied to and keeps it from supporting the combustion process. Therefore, a fire reactant removes two key components of the fire tetrahedron – fuel and the chemical chain reaction.
“Fire behaviorists, insurance underwriters and loss-control specialists have focused renewed attention on the use of fire retardants as a viable method to stimulate and encourage a proactive environment based on preventative principles,” Kraemer said.
One company that is involved in the development of fire-reactant technology is No-Burn Inc., an Ohio-based company. William Kish, president of No-Burn, explains how his products work: “When a porous item is treated with a No-Burn product, it becomes highly resistive to fire. Whether wood, drywall, fabric, paper or any number of items are treated with No-Burn, these ordinary items that normally contribute to the spread of a fire become incapable of burning. When No-Burn is exposed to heat, the product transforms into a carbon-based material. Because this material does not burn, whatever it is protecting will not burn or support the combustion process.” No-Burn manufactures six fire reactants for use in residential and commercial structures.
Putting It To The Test
Tests show that fire reactants work very well. For instance, when applied to a sheet of paper and allowed to dry, a cigarette lighter held in direct contact with the paper for 20 seconds could not ignite the paper. While charring occurred in the immediate area of flame contact, the paper would not ignite or support further flame spread.
Photo courtesy of No-Burn Inc.
The No-Burn Plus house. Notice in the bottom of the house that the paper pile is in place. Around the edges of the top plate is the intumescent (bubbling) of the paint that creates the char-barrier between the structural components and the fire. There was no structural damage to this house.
In another test involving wood, Kish demonstrated how a fire reactant can protect a small piece of wood, such as a tongue depressor. Dipping half of the stick in the No-Burn Wood Gard solution and letting it dry, a lighter was held to the untreated side for 15 seconds and the stick continued to burn. Holding the lighter to treated side only produced the carbon charring with no after flame.
“When we treat the framing of a new home,” Kish said, “we treat every exposed surface of raw wood. This means that electrical shorts in the wall or a direct lightning strike will not be able to effectively use the wooden structural components as a viable fuel source.” From the viewpoint of firefighters, that means that the possibility of structural collapse or having the individual components of wooden trusses fail are far less likely, especially in the early stages of a fire.
While in many cases fire reactants may be able to prevent a fire from starting, Kish pointed out that fire reactants are not fireproof. “Anything will burn given enough time and temperature,” he said. So what is the main purpose of fire reactants? To create additional time during a fire situation by stopping or drastically slowing down fire spread.
“Fire reactants are the best first-line defense against fire, especially in the home, where most fire deaths occur,” Kish contended. “The average American home is a death trap waiting to happen. With the use of synthetic products in just about every type of home furnishing and the increased use of polyurethane foams in furniture, fires that once took four minutes to fully involve a room are now taking less than two. Rooms are literally exploding into flames.”