Flame retardants have been shown to have serious effects on childhood development, from as early as prenatal exposure. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a class of brominated hydrocarbons that are used as flame retardants.
According to the EPA, PBDEs are all around us in fabrics, upholstery, and polyurethane foam. Phased out over the past decade, unfortunately these toxic chemicals are still all around us. They’ve been detected in fish, surface water, and in the air. Researchers have linked them to attention deficit and impulse control problems in children. The EPA even reports that PBDEs are possible endocrine disruptors.
Now researchers at the University of Texas have developed a new flame-retardant substance based on a natural chemical used by mussels. This innovative product is based on dopamine, a compound found in animals. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in humans and a precursor of other substances such as adrenaline.
Naturally used by mussels to stick to surfaces, this synthetic compound called polydopamine had been studied extensively for technological and health-related applications. The UT Austin team were the first to investigate its flame-retardant properties.
Researchers found up to a 67% reduction in peak heat release rate (a measure of fire intensity) when a coating of polydopamine was applied to polyurethane foam, which is used in things such as automobile seats and dashboards. The compound’s ability to reduce a fire’s intensity is around 20% better than flame retardants currently in use. Water-applied, the coating absorbs the molecules released by burning materials, inhibiting fires from taking hold on the coated object.
Professor Christopher Ellison, who led the team to this discovery, said “We believe polydopamine could cheaply and easily replace the flame retardants found in many of the products that we use every day, making these products safer for both children and adults.”
The exciting news is that this new flame retardant promises to not harm children in the early stages of childhood development.
Ellison and his team are now testing to see whether they can shorten the nanocoating treatment process or develop a more convenient application process.
Ellison’s research received funding from a 3M Nontenured Faculty Award, DuPont Young Professor Award and the Norman Hackerman Advanced Research Program.