Incredibly, at a time when California has endured some of the most destructive and deadly fires in its history—including unprecedented losses of businesses, homes, and other structures—the California Building Standards Commission is about to consider a proposal that could make structures in the state more vulnerable to fires.
Building codes in the state require a number of measures be taken to meet fire safety standards, including the use of stringent fire tests for all plastic foams that insulate many structures in the state. Unfortunately this proposal would allow the use of foam insulation that contains no flame retardants at all, and indeed, would exempt some foams from California code fire safety testing, removing a critical component of fire safety.
It gets worse:
Proposals similar to this one have been rejected five times by the International Code Council, the body of building and fire code officials responsible for shaping building codes in the United States and used in other regions around the world.
The Commission’s own Building, Fire and Other Code Advisory Committee determined that this proposal required long-term further study before action is taken on the issue. But the Office of the State Fire Marshal elected to ignore these experts and decided to move the proposal forward anyway.
Numerous critical stakeholders—including firefighters, builders, and the manufacturers who actually produce plastic foam insulations—were never consulted on the proposal and were shut out of the advisory process.
The proposal is based on a single study from an unaccredited lab. And the underlying data in the report actually confirms that polystyrene foam insulation without flame retardants is easily ignited compared to polystyrene foam insulation with flame retardants that are necessary to meet fire code requirements today.
As written, the proposal allows use of non-FR foams only horizontally, below grade. However, if used, FR-foams meeting current code are required in every other location, such as walls, roofs, attics, etc., both horizontally and vertically. The likelihood of mis-application is inappropriately high for a state building code.
Legislation (AB127) required the State Fire Marshal to determine if foam insulation could meet current flammability standards without flame retardants, or develop new flammability standards for foams without fire retardants that would continue to maintain the overall building fire safety currently in place. Based on the single study referenced earlier, this proposal will not meet that standard. Instead of developing new flammability standards, the proposal merely removes the requirement for the non-FR foam to comply with existing fire tests. It’s as if a law were proposed to remove seatbelts in cars, and to address the criticism that this made them less safe, the law’s proponents then exempted these cars from crash tests.
By contrast, exempting foams without flame retardants from fire standards would significantly elevate fire risk, especially since FR and non-FR foams will be both available in warehouses, retail stores and on the job site.
Since the stated goal of the AB127 legislation emphasized that any code proposals must maintain stringent fire safety standards, we can only conclude that the Fire Marshal’s Office dismissed the potential for mis-application with this code proposal. But the Commission’s advisory committee did recognize this risk, in addition to the lack of stakeholder involvement leading to their recommendation for further study before any action be taken. That’s why the California Building Commission must oppose this code change.
The people of California can’t allow fire safety to be compromised in the name of anti-flame retardant extremism. Allowing the presence of foam insulation without the latest in flame retardant technology, even only in certain applications, will inevitably lead to its accidental use in non-approved applications, and will invariably lead to a fire safety issue in California which is precisely what the lawmakers of California instructed the Governor’s Office to avoid.
In short, these proposals from the Office of the State Fire Marshal are a step backwards in fire safety, and they must be disapproved: