Helping to protect firefighters from harmful chemicals


August 2021

The Government of Canada has announced a comprehensive action plan to protect firefighters from harmful chemicals released during household fires. This plan includes:

Banning harmful chemical flame retardants

To ensure that harmful chemicals are identified, the Government has assessed over 150 flame retardants. Of those chemicals that have been assessed, eighteen have been found to harm human health or the environment. The Government has taken action to restrict or phase out twelve of these substances, and proposes to take action on six other flame-retardant substances.

The Government is also currently assessing fourteen other flame retardants to determine whether they pose health or environmental harms. More flame retardants have been identified as priorities under the Chemicals Management Plan. The Government of Canada will continue working on these priority chemicals, while proposing to better identify and help protect populations that may be at increased risk due to either greater exposure or greater susceptibility, including firefighters and children.

The Government also has a program in place to assess new substances to prevent harmful chemicals, including flame retardants, from entering the Canadian marketplace without appropriate control measures when required. Additionally, approximately 130 organic flame retardants have been evaluated under the New Substances Program to ensure that no new substances are introduced into the Canadian marketplace before undergoing an assessment, and appropriate control measures were taken on eleven of these substances.

Decreasing the use of chemical flame retardants

Alternatives to chemical flame retardants may include the use of inherently flame‑resistant materials (such as polyester or wool) or chemical-free fire barrier systems, or a combination of these or other measures. These approaches can help reduce the use of potentially harmful chemicals and the Government is taking action to promote their adoption.

Health Canada recently published a Notice to stakeholders on the use of flame‑retardant chemicals in certain consumer products in Canada. The objective of the Notice is to encourage Canadian manufacturers, importers, advertisers, and sellers of consumer products to achieve compliance with the flammability performance requirements for certain consumer products set out in regulations under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act without using chemical flame retardants. The Notice supports product innovation and the protection of Canadians’ health.

The Industry Guide to Flammability of Textile Products in Canada identifies some factors affecting textile flammability, such as fibre content, fabric construction, fabric weight, and fabric finishes and encourages consideration of these factors when designing, constructing, and sourcing products and their components.

Conducting research and monitoring firefighters’ level of exposure to chemicals

To inform strategies designed to protect firefighters, their exposure to harmful chemicals is being monitored through various research projects, including studies involving blood and urine samples. These projects will collectively inform the Government’s current and future work to assess and risk manage harmful chemicals. They include the following:

  • Collaborative research led by experts at the University of Ottawa involved collection and examination of urine and skin wipes. The study noted that skin contact is likely an important source of exposure to cancer-causing substances in smoke. These results were shared with the scientific community and the International Association of Fire Fighters. 
  • The Government has partnered with experts at McGill University to analyze select flame retardants and another class of environmental contaminants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in urine samples. Follow‑up research, which is being led by Health Canada, is determining firefighters’ exposures to flame retardants and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Identifying best practices for firefighters to reduce harm

Research has shown that skin exposure to smoke from burning household products may be harmful to firefighters. The use of better personal protective equipment (PPE) or the implementation of measures to reduce skin contact and penetration might reduce this exposure.

An ongoing study led by the University of Ottawa is examining strategies to reduce exposure via skin contact and penetration. Once they become available, study partners (including Health Canada and the Canadian Forces Fire Marshall) will share the results with the scientific community, and the local, national, and international community of firefighters. Next steps could include research designed to formally evaluate the level of protection afforded by improved PPE.

Sharing information and raising awareness

As part of its work to strengthen the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, the Government of Canada will take action to improve information for supply chain managers and to enhance mandatory labelling for certain consumer products, giving Canadians greater access to information about the substances to which they are exposed. This could include disclosing on a label the specific flame retardants used on upholstered furniture.

Health Canada’s Notice to stakeholders encourages Canadian manufacturers, importers, advertisers, and sellers to voluntarily disclose the chemicals used in the consumer products they supply in Canada, including any flame-retardant chemicals, when requested by distributors, retailers, or the public. Information can be found on Health Canada’s Healthy Home website.

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