Fire Protection Product Guidance

Use the red-to-green product guidance below to select safer product types by avoiding those in red and preferring yellow and green, which are safer for occupants, fenceline communities, and workers.

When choosing fire protection:

  • Prefer mineral-based spray fire protection (gypsum- or portland cement-based) or slag- or mineral-fiber board over intumescent fire protection.
  • For intumescent fire protection:
    • Prefer a site-applied water-based coating or a factory-applied coating.
    • Avoid products that contain halogenated flame retardants (HFRs).
    • Avoid epoxies (both site applied and factory applied).

This guidance covers fire protection materials (also referred to as fireproofing) that are applied to structural steel such as columns, beams, and joists. Their function is to slow the heating and associated weakening of the steel in the case of a building fire in order to prevent or delay collapse of the structure. Fire protection materials include spray-applied fire-resistive materials (SFRMs), intumescent fire-resistive coatings (IFRCs), and rigid board fire resistive materials. SFRMs are cementitious in nature and are made of Portland cement and/or gypsum. They are typically powders that are mixed with water on site and spray-applied. These products protect steel by thermally insulating it during a fire. IFRCs are paint-like coatings that include intumescent and fire resistance additives. Intumescents react and expand when exposed to high temperatures in order to insulate the steel they are protecting. They can be factory applied or applied on site by spray, roller, or brush. Intumescent fire protection is often preferred where the steel is visible to building occupants for aesthetic reasons. Rigid board materials can be used when spraying is not practical: in cold weather, where there are space constraints, for out of sequence construction phases, etc.[1] Rigid board fire protection includes mineral- or slag-fiber boards which are made primarily of mineral fibers and a binder. They provide thermal insulation to protect the steel structure in the event of a fire. Calcium silicate board fire protection is also available, but it was not found to be common and was not included in the analysis. 

Fire protection products can contain a range of hazardous chemicals.  Those of highest concern include halogenated flame retardants, solvents, and epoxies. These chemicals can impact installers and building occupants.

In addition, the production of fire protection materials can also have significant impacts on nearby communities and the broader environment through the release of hazardous chemicals. These impacts can occur at the facilities that make the products as well as those farther back in the supply chain. For example, intumescent fire protection coatings are made primarily of petrochemicals: chemicals derived from oil or natural gas. Oil and gas extraction and processing release hazardous pollution that can have significant impacts on the health of people in surrounding communities, and these polluting facilities are disproportionately sited in BIPOC and low-wealth communities contributing to environmental injustice.[2]

Some fire protection products have historically contained asbestos, so this is something to be aware of related to legacy fire protection materials.[3] In 2019, the US EPA enacted a rule prohibiting the manufacture or import of asbestos in products for legacy applications like fire protection. Their research indicated that asbestos was no longer used in fire protection products, and the 2019 rule prohibits future use without an EPA evaluation and potential restrictions or prohibitions.[4]

Below is some additional, more detailed guidance to use when choosing fire protection materials. This guidance is focused on material health considerations. Ensure that any products that you use meet the required fire protection requirements of applicable building codes.

  • Prefer mineral-based spray fire protection (gypsum- or portland cement-based) or slag- or mineral-fiber board over intumescent fire protection. Fire protection based on gypsum, Portland cement, and mineral fibers has fewer hazardous chemical impacts across the life cycle than intumescent coatings. The binders and intumescent systems in the coatings have several hazardous inputs, and the coatings are made primarily of petrochemicals. Oil and gas production and the use of hazardous chemical inputs both can expose fenceline communities to hazardous pollution, impacting the health of residents.
  • For intumescent fire protection:
    • Prefer a site-applied water-based coating or a factory-applied coating. Water-based coatings are typically only applied on site, and contain less hazardous content than solvent-based or epoxy products. If not using a site-applied water-based coating, choose a non-epoxy factory-applied product to keep hazardous solvents out of the building and in a more controlled environment.
    • Avoid products that contain halogenated flame retardants (HFRs). Intumescent coatings can contain TCPP or chlorinated paraffins, which are HFRs. HFRs are considered a very high concern to avoid because they can be persistent and toxic. HFRs can be found in all types of intumescents including water-based, solvent-based, and epoxy, but all also appear to have product options that avoid them. You can find a list of halogenated flame retardants in Pharos.
    • Avoid epoxies (both site applied and factory applied).  In addition to the use of hazardous solvents in epoxy-based intumescent coatings, the epoxy itself is based on many hazardous inputs, including bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that interferes with how hormones work in the body.

Gypsum spray fire protection is a type of spray-applied fire resistive material (SFRM). Most normal density or commercial density SFRM (15-21 pounds per cubic foot (pcf)) are gypsum spray fire protection (see Portland Cement Spray Fire Protection below for an exception). 

These products are relatively low hazard. They are made primarily of minerals with limited petrochemical content. Some ingredients or impurities are hazardous in dust form, including crystalline silica which is a carcinogen when respirable. Workers may be exposed when dust is generated during extraction and processing of gypsum, product manufacturing, or installation.

Portland cement spray fire protection is inclusive of products with a Portland cement component: medium density SFRM (22-39 pounds per cubic foot (pcf)), high density SFRM (>39 pcf), and mineral fiber cementitious fire protection. Mineral fiber cementitious fire protection is sometimes called “dry” or “fiber” type and is normal or commercial density (15-21 pcf).[5] Cementitious fire protection products are typically based on Portland cement and other minerals or mineral-based materials like vermiculite or mineral fibers and have limited petrochemical content.[6]

These products are relatively low hazard. Some ingredients or impurities are hazardous in dust form, including crystalline silica which is a carcinogen when respirable. Workers may be exposed when dust is generated during extraction and processing of gypsum, product manufacturing, or installation. 

Fuel- and process-related emissions from Portland cement manufacture can expose fenceline communities to toxic chemicals, including mercury. In addition, decarbonization efforts often promote incineration of plastic and solid waste at cement kilns that can release additional harmful pollutants including dioxins, benzene, lead and mercury.[7]

Slag- or mineral-fiber boards are a type of rigid fire protection made of mineral wool fibers and a binder. Mineral wool is made from a molten mixture of rock and blast furnace slag from the steel industry. The fibers are commonly sprayed with a formaldehyde-based binder and formed into boards before being put through an oven to cure. Formaldehyde, a carcinogen and asthmagen, can be released into communities during manufacturing, and small quantities of residual formaldehyde can also be released into buildings during use. 

Within this type watch out for: Faced products. This ranking is based on unfaced products. Facers may add additional hazards.

Water-based intumescent fire protection is site-applied. It is similar to standard latex paints but also contains an intumescent system and fire resistance additives. These coatings typically use an acrylic or polyvinyl acetate binder. Products that fall into this ranking avoid the use of halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) and are relatively low hazard during use. 

Hazardous chemicals, such as the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, are used in the production of the common intumescent system. In addition, over half of the product is based on petrochemicals. Oil and gas extraction and refining, necessary for the production of petrochemicals, exposes fenceline communities to elevated concentrations of hazardous pollution.[2]

Within this type watch out for: Halogenated flame retardants which will impact the color ranking. Water-based intumescent coatings with HFRs are ranked red. Orthophthalates, also called phthalates, are not common, but may be used in some products. These chemicals should be avoided because they are endocrine disruptors that can mimic hormones and consequently are associated with numerous health effects.[8] Ask manufacturers to verify that products are free of these chemicals of concern per the HFR and orthophthalate lists in Pharos.

Solvent-based intumescent fire protection can be factory- or site-applied. Factory-applied products keep hazardous solvents out of the building and in a more controlled environment. Products that avoid the use of halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) are relatively low hazard during use. 

Hazardous chemicals, such as the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, are used in the production of the common intumescent system. In addition, well over half of the product is based on petrochemicals. Oil and gas extraction and refining, necessary for the production of petrochemicals, exposes fenceline communities to elevated concentrations of hazardous pollution.[2] 

Within this type watch out for: Halogenated flame retardants which will impact the color ranking. Solvent-based intumescent coatings with HFRs are ranked red. Ask manufacturers to verify that products are free of these chemicals of concern. You can find a list of halogenated flame retardants in Pharos.

Water-based intumescent fire protection is site-applied. It is similar to standard latex paints but also contains an intumescent system and fire resistance additives. These coatings typically use an acrylic or polyvinyl acetate binder. They can contain TCPP or chlorinated paraffins, which are halogenated flame retardants (HFRs). Halogenated flame retardants are considered a very high concern to avoid because they can be persistent and toxic.

Hazardous chemicals, such as the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, are used in the production of the common intumescent system. In addition, over half of the product is based on petrochemicals. Oil and gas extraction and refining, necessary for the production of petrochemicals, exposes fenceline communities to elevated concentrations of hazardous pollution.[2]

Within this type prefer: Products free of halogenated flame retardants, which are ranked orange in this guidance. Ask manufacturers to verify that products are free of these chemicals of concern. You can find a list of halogenated flame retardants in Pharos. Better ranked water-based intumescents are still orange, so try to use different types of products that are ranked green or yellow.

Solvent-based intumescent fire protection can be factory- or site-applied. Factory-applied products keep hazardous solvents out of the building and in a more controlled environment. These coatings can contain chlorinated paraffins, which are halogenated flame retardants (HFRs). Halogenated flame retardants are considered a very high concern to avoid because they can be persistent and toxic.

Hazardous chemicals, such as the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, are used in the production of the common intumescent system. In addition, well over half of the product is based on petrochemicals. Oil and gas extraction and refining, necessary for the production of petrochemicals, exposes fenceline communities to elevated concentrations of hazardous pollution.[2]

Within this type prefer: Products free of halogenated flame retardants, which are ranked orange in this guidance. Ask manufacturers to verify that products are free of these chemicals of concern. You can find a list of halogenated flame retardants in Pharos. Better ranked solvent-based intumescents are still orange, so try to use different types of products that are ranked green or yellow.

Within this type watch out for: Site-applied products. Solvent-based intumescent coatings are ranked dark red in this guidance.

Epoxy intumescent fire protection can be factory- or site-applied. Factory-applied products keep hazardous solvents and reacting chemicals out of the building and in a more controlled environment, however they have significant hazards throughout their life cycle. 

The epoxy itself is based on many hazardous inputs, including bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that interferes with how hormones work in the body. Hazardous chemicals, such as the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, are used in the production of the common intumescent system. In addition, well over half of the product is based on petrochemicals. Oil and gas extraction and refining, necessary for the production of petrochemicals, exposes fenceline communities to elevated concentrations of hazardous pollution.[2]

Some products can contain tri-(2-chloroisopropyl)phosphate (TCPP) or chlorinated paraffins, which are halogenated flame retardants (HFRs). Halogenated flame retardants are considered a very high concern to avoid because they can be persistent and toxic.

Within this type prefer: Products free of halogenated flame retardants, but these products are still some of the worst in class. Try to use different types of products that are ranked green or yellow.

Solvent-based intumescent fire protection can be factory- or site-applied. Site-applied coatings can expose installers and others nearby to hazardous solvents such as the carcinogen ethylbenzene and developmental toxicants xylene and toluene. These coatings may also contain chlorinated paraffins, which are halogenated flame retardants (HFRs). Halogenated flame retardants are considered a very high concern to avoid because they can be persistent and toxic.

Hazardous chemicals, such as the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, are used in the production of the common intumescent system. In addition, well over half of the product is based on petrochemicals. Oil and gas extraction and refining, necessary for the production of petrochemicals, exposes fenceline communities to elevated concentrations of hazardous pollution.[2]

Within this type prefer: Factory-applied products that are free of halogenated flame retardants, which are ranked orange in this guidance. Ask manufacturers to verify that products are free of these chemicals of concern. You can find a list of halogenated flame retardants in Pharos. Better ranked solvent-based intumescents are still orange, so try to use different types of products that are ranked green or yellow.

Epoxy intumescent fire protection can be factory- or site-applied. Site-applied coatings can expose installers and others nearby to hazardous solvents such as the developmental toxicant toluene. Some products can contain tri-(2-chloroisopropyl)phosphate (TCPP) or chlorinated paraffins, which are halogenated flame retardants (HFRs). Halogenated flame retardants are considered a very high concern to avoid because they can be persistent and toxic.

The epoxy itself is based on many hazardous inputs, including bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that interferes with how hormones work in the body. Hazardous chemicals, such as the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, are used in the production of the common intumescent system. In addition, well over half of the product is based on petrochemicals. Oil and gas extraction and refining, necessary for the production of petrochemicals, exposes fenceline communities to elevated concentrations of hazardous pollution.[2]

Within this type prefer: Site-applied products that are free of halogenated flame retardants, but these products are still some of the worst in class. Try to use different types of products that are ranked green or yellow.

Supporting Information

Unless otherwise noted, product content and health hazard information is based on research done by Healthy Building Network for Common Product profiles, reports, and blogs. Links to the appropriate resources are provided.

Common Product Records Sourced

Endnotes

[1] UL Solutions. “UL Solutions’ Guide to Steelwork Fire Protection,” 2023. https://www.ul.com/sites/g/files/qbfpbp251/files/2023-04/BE22CS758433_-_Best_Practice_Guide_for_Passive_Fire_Protection_for_Structural_Steelwork_2022_Final-Digitsl.pdf.

[2] “Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 19, 2014, https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-natural-gas.; Tim Donaghy and Charlie Jiang, “Fossil Fuel Racism: How Phasing Out Oil, Gas, and Coal Can Protect Communities,” April 13, 2021, https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/fossil-fuel-racism/.; Garcia-Gonzales, Diane A., Seth B.C. Shonkoff, Jake Hays, and Michael Jerrett. “Hazardous Air Pollutants Associated with Upstream Oil and Natural Gas Development: A Critical Synthesis of Current Peer-Reviewed Literature.” Annual Review of Public Health 40, no. 1 (2019): 283–304. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040218-043715.; Gonzalez, David J. X., Anthony Nardone, Andrew V. Nguyen, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Joan A. Casey. “Historic Redlining and the Siting of Oil and Gas Wells in the United States.” Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, April 13, 2022, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41370-022-00434-9.; Berberian, Alique G., Jenny Rempel, Nicholas Depsky, Komal Bangia, Sophia Wang, and Lara J. Cushing. “Race, Racism, and Drinking Water Contamination Risk From Oil and Gas Wells in Los Angeles County, 2020.” American Journal of Public Health 113, no. 11 (November 2023): 1191–1200. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2023.307374.

[3] US EPA, OCSPP. “EPA Actions to Protect the Public from Exposure to Asbestos.” Overviews and Factsheets, June 12, 2023. https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/epa-actions-protect-public-exposure-asbestos.

[4] US EPA. “40 CFR Parts 9 and 721 - Restrictions on Discontinued Uses of Asbestos,” April 25, 2019. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CFR-2019-title40-vol33/pdf/CFR-2019-title40-vol33-sec721-11095.pdf.; US EPA, OCSPP. “EPA Actions to Protect the Public from Exposure to Asbestos.” Overviews and Factsheets, June 12, 2023. https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/epa-actions-protect-public-exposure-asbestos.

[5] Isolatek International. “Cafco Blaze Shield II HS TDS,” July 2023. https://www.isolatek.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/CAFCO-BLAZESHIELD-ll-HS_C-TDS_07-23.pdf.

[6] Young, Kelli. “LCA of Isolatek International Passive Fire Protection Products.” Sustainable Minds, January 2019. https://transparencycatalog.com/assets/uploads/pdf/Isolatek_Products_Public_Verified_LCA_Aprl2019.pdf. See also: CP for Cementitious Fireproofing.

[7] Veena Singla and Sasha Stashwick. “Cut Carbon and Toxic Pollution, Make Cement Clean and Green.” NRDC (blog), January 18, 2022. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/sasha-stashwick/cut-carbon-and-toxic-pollution-make-cement-clean-and-green

[8] Gore, A. C., V. A. Chappell, S. E. Fenton, J. A. Flaws, A. Nadal, G. S. Prins, J. Toppari, and R. T. Zoeller. “EDC-2: The Endocrine Society’s Second Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals.” Endocrine Reviews 36, no. 6 (December 2015): E1–150. https://doi.org/10.1210/er.2015-1010; Engel, Stephanie M., Heather B. Patisaul, Charlotte Brody, Russ Hauser, Ami R. Zota, Deborah H. Bennet, Maureen Swanson, and Robin M. Whyatt. “Neurotoxicity of Ortho-Phthalates: Recommendations for Critical Policy Reforms to Protect Brain Development in Children.” American Journal of Public Health, February 18, 2021, e1–9. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.306014; Bennett Deborah, Bellinger David C., Birnbaum Linda S., Bradman Asa, Chen Aimin, Cory-Slechta Deborah A., Engel Stephanie M., et al. “Project TENDR: Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks The TENDR Consensus Statement.” Environmental Health Perspectives 124, no. 7 (July 1, 2016): A118–22. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP358; American Public Health Association. “A Precautionary Approach to Reducing American Exposure to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals,” November 9, 2010. https://apha.org/Policies-and-Advocacy/Public-Health-Policy-Statements/Policy-Database/2014/07/09/09/03/A-Precautionary-Approach-to-Reducing-American-Exposure-to-Endocrine-Disrupting-Chemicals.

Last updated: November 1, 2023