Why Did the California Building Standards Commission Just Approve An Unregulated Building Product?

Despite the recommendation of its own expert advisory committee to table the issue in favor of further long-term study, the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) last week approved the use of polystyrene foam insulation without flame retardants in certain building applications. This means that this new product, which is not commercially available, will be placed into the home and commercial construction markets without any fire testing or any quality control measures at all – stripping requirements that have been in California and national model building codes since 1976.

Such proposals have been voted down five times by the International Code Council (ICC). Foam insulation trade associations and manufacturers of polystyrene insulation, who know these products best, as well as prominent fire testing labs objected to this decision.  Fire science experts pointed to the lack of supporting scientific data contained in the underlying technical report issued by Oklahoma State University. In fact, this report clearly showed that the experimental foam insulation without flame retardants was easily ignited by a very small flame, such as a candle. It is also worth noting that Oklahoma State University is not a code accredited laboratory.

So who supported the proposal? Two of the more outspoken opponents were a group of architects who complained that the current market options for insulation materials that don’t use flame retardants but still meet code requirements are “too expensive.” And most ardently, the Green Science Policy Institute (GPSI), which has been working for 5 years to discredit flame retardants in building insulations, relying on a handful of flawed “reports” from authors lacking credibility and collaborating with friendly trade press, to present their case. All the while ignoring global independent governmental findings, industry research concerns around these studies, and the basics of fire science from expert fire science institutions.

How could the CBSC approve use of a product that will so easily ignite? GSPI used a report that claims flame retardants are not necessary in foam insulation – a report that has been rejected five times by the ICC. They dismissed the fact that the polystyrene insulation industry had converted to a US EPA recognized innovative technology specifically designed for polystyrene insulation. GSPI then attacked the new technology using biased information from its hand-picked study that dismissed the latest generation of fire retardants as “toxic.” But what the Commission didn’t hear is that the reports used to support these claims, when reviewed by experts, do not actually draw those conclusions. Amazingly, one of these reports was funded by an industry competitor who serves to financially gain by maligning foam insulation in general.  

Although the code change may seem limited — it only allows flame-retardant free polystyrene foams – without fire testing or quality control - to be used below concrete slabs, and only in horizontal applications — it must be remembered that all of the remaining applications for the same foams in the same building project must meet the code required fire test performance. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine that sooner or later the products will be confused, and the wrong product used in the wrong place, to potentially devastating results. Codes should prevent fires, not create them.

Stringent building and fire code regulation of these energy efficient products over the past 40 years has led to safe use of these product in many applications, including walls, roofs, attics, foundations, doors, coolers and freezers. We don’t believe there is any place for building codes that purposefully cause confusion.

Fire safety versus junk science? Who won?