Natural Fire Resistant Cotton

cotton field t20 Po6ZBd Natural Fire Resistant Cotton

Natural Fire Resistant Cotton

A research team from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed a new cotton cultivar that self-extinguishes when it is exposed to fire. The fire resistant trait of the crop was developed naturally through selective breeding. This work may lead to the development of products with built-in flame resistance.

Fire resistance in cotton can now be grown in and no longer requires forever chemicals. Image is a field of cotton at sunrise ready to be picked.
Fire resistance in cotton can now be grown in, and no longer requires forever chemicals. Image: T20.

Forever Chemical Past

Cotton is a plant that is grown all over the world and supports a vast industry in the production, processing, distribution and end use of textiles. It is the world’s most widely used natural fiber and represents about 30% of all fiber used in the textile industry.

In the past, cotton textiles have needed to be chemically treated to achieve fire resistance. Flame retardant finishes have been introduced to the market since the 1970s. But these chemicals are not easily broken down and have long-term effects on health. The chemicals; Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are also commonly used in water repellent outerwear and non-stick cookwear. They are endocrine disruoptors and have been linked to cancer and chilhood illness. Worst of all, they are known as the forever chemicals because of their longevity, and they also can bioaccumulate in humans and animals.

According to a recent study, almost 60% of textiles labeled “waterproof”, “stain-resistant”, or “environmentally friendly” and were intended for children, contain PFAS. Among the products checked were clothing, pillow protectors, bedding and furniture.

It is essential to find alternative materials, and this is why the USDA reaserch is of such importance.

Non-GMO Fire Resistance

Scientists used 10 different strains of cotton, each with its own burn rate properties documented. They then bred these different stains, documenting the burn rates of the resultant cotton. In the resulting batches of product, four had self-extinguishing properties. They had created fire-resistant cotton without using chemicals. The remarkable results are documented here.

The genetic outlines of the strains revealed a complex interaction between multiple genetic regions that compound the flame-retardant effects. Because they are bred from existing strains, they are not genetically manipulated in a lab, and may be more robust plants in the field. Because there are four varieties, it is likely they will have different atributes, and may require less inputs and intervention from farmers.

Cotton or Hemp?

While cotton is often criticized as a environmentally irresponsible crop due to industrial scale production methods, that too is changing. The industry is slowly bending to more stringent environmental laws and regulation of existing laws. Public demand for organic and fair trade cotton further reinforces the fact that cleaning up the cotton industry is critical. These non-gmo cottons can be gerown in organic farms further increasing the value to consumers, if not industry.

The way the scientists developed Fire Resistant Cotton is not unique to this type of plant, selective breeding of plants and animals in this way has been practiced for millenia and has resulted in the domestic breeds of plants oand animals that sustain our society. The same process could be used on alternate fibres that do not require as much water or other resources to grow. Hemp is the obvious one; used for thousands of years to make textiles and rope, it is stronger and more versataile than cotton. Hemp requires less water to grow and sequesters more carbon than most other crops. It stands to reason that a fire-resistant strain of hemp is just around the corner.

For now though, cotton is king. It is a huge, multi-national indsutry that ships to all corners of the world and touches nearly every other industry in some indirect way. Anything that makes it cleaner and better for the planet is a good idea.

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