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Experiment Showing the Effectiveness of Flame Retardant Use in Building Materials

One recent fire that attracted significant attention due to its 100 fatalities was the Rhode Island nightclub fire. A less widely known element to the story is that many attributed the fire’s rapid spread to the soundproofing material used at the nightclub, which reportedly did not meet the flammability provisions required under state building code. In the aftermath of the tragedy,  NIST ran a study to make specific recommendations to improve the fire safety of nightclubs as a result of the agency’s investigation of the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at The Station nightclub in W. Warwick, R.I. As part of their work, NIST scientists ran flammability experiments of non-fire retarded and fire retarded soundproofing material using similar pyrotechnics to those that were used the night of the fire. These materials were purchased from a distributor in several lots, but no information is given as to the types of flame retardants used. The study concluded the following:

“The experiments that involved discharging pyrotechnic devices against a foam-covered wall demonstrated that the shower of sparks could ignite non-fire retardant polyurethane foam, but that the sparks were not able to ignite fire retardant polyurethane foam, wood paneling or gypsum board within the 15 second discharge. The ignition of the non-fire retarded polyurethane foam was similar to the ignition sequence observed in the video of the incident.”

Additionally, one of the main recommendations included the following:  

“Materials that ignite easily and propagate flames rapidly, such as non-fire retardant polyurethane foam, should be clearly identifiable and be specifically forbidden as an interior finish material in all nightclubs.”

The study clearly indicates that flame retardants can have an important role in fire safety—in this case, in preventing a fire from starting. 


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