Construction contributes 40% of global CO2 emissions, so it’s no surprise that concerns around the environmental impacts of the industry are mounting. Several factors are at play regarding this growing issue, and toxic pollution within construction is one of the most significant.

If these challenges are to be overcome, construction professionals need to develop a deeper understanding of the materials used in buildings. This includes considering the entire life cycles of structures, and their performance as part of wider systems. It is also crucial that developers remain critical of current safety standards, including the use of fire retardants, which can be hazardous and toxic to the environment.

Fire retardants are used to increase the protection of building materials such as timber against fire and fire spread. As an attractive and flexible material, timber is seeing a resurgence in popularity due to its renewability and properties as a carbon sink. Yet many fail to recognise that toxic chemicals used in the protection of this material reduce its green credentials, presenting an unforeseen danger to the environment. When specified as part of larger projects, the associated danger of toxic pollution is at risk of being overlooked.

Fortunately, solutions are in place to resolve this issue, and extensive R&D has led to new innovations of low-toxicity fire retardants. Implementing these in a meaningful way will be a significant leap forward in the use of renewable building materials.


Timber can be an effective sustainable building option, but care must be given to its treatment when used within building projects. Schemes such as the Forest Stewardship Council are improving sustainability within timber construction by providing greater visibility and assurances across supply chains. This means suppliers can hit sustainability targets, while also showcasing their commitment to improving environmental standards within construction.

Whilst this is good news, there remains the danger posed by toxic pollution, which is equally as important as the ability to reduce carbon. However, if the construction industry can find a way of harnessing timber’s sustainable properties whilst removing the risk of danger to health, then developers can rest easy in the knowledge that residents and our environment are being protected.


When untreated wood burns, volatile organic compounds and carcinogens are released into the atmosphere. Due to their chemical composition, fire retardants can exacerbate this by releasing highly noxious fumes which damage our health and our ecosystem even without fire. Chemicals from materials can also make their way into the environment via other routes such as water, through rain and drainage. This can even occur as early as the initial processing stages of timber products during manufacturing.

A range of chemicals have been explored over the last few decades for applications in fire retardants in an effort to find a solution. Halogenated chemicals, such as brominated and chlorinated compounds have been one such popular, cost-effective solution. Unfortunately, these chemicals have been found to cause health complications such as hormone disruptions and infertility. Because of this, many products using this chemical have already been banned or voluntarily phased out.

In the EU, for example, the use of some brominated fire retardants is banned or restricted. This progress is encouraging; however, further advancements are needed to provide safer alternatives to these well-established solutions.

Living with toxic fire-retardants no longer needs to be an issue – non-toxic fire retardants are available, and by increasing awareness around their abilities, specifiers can build safer and more sustainably, particularly in regards to use of timber. Moving forward, it’s vital that research continues and leaders within the construction industry keep up the drive for safer solutions.

It’s understandable that the sector is now looking for sustainable building materials but players in the industry must ensure there’s a clear understanding on how they are used and protected when incorporated into a final build. Business leaders are open to adopting new technologies, however, there must be clarity and visibility on their risk to health from that protection. It’s this attention to detail that will create more environmentally friendly practices in years to come, and as further regulations around building safety come into play, allow the sector to stay one step ahead.

Continued R&D is playing a major role in making buildings more fire safe and sustainable but we need further progress to develop more products free of harmful substances such as halogenated chemicals, and they must be implemented regardless of cost. Ultimately, suppliers must begin prioritising human and environmental health above all else. It’s only then that we can truly achieve the cleaner, greener future we’re all striving for.