We like to think that the buildings we live in are safe from fire. But as we saw with the Grenfell Tower fire in London, in which metal composite panels with polyethylene (PE) led to a towering inferno, some materials that we use in our walls and construction might not be safe. Even here in Georgia.
The polyethylene panels can give buildings a sort-of futuristic quality to them, they help insulate and they are cheap. But PE, a common plastic, is highly flammable. You don’t have to look all the way to London to see how this material could lead to danger. Just look to Atlanta, where in March, a section of highway collapsed due to a fire caused by PE.
An investigative report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that it can be difficult to discover whether your home or workplace is covered in flammable paneling. This is due to shoddy record-keeping by government inspectors and building owners alike.
PE cladding is generally not permitted on buildings that go higher than 40 feet (the highest a firetruck ladder can reach). But the Journal found that, based on local regulations, sometimes, this material can go much, much higher.
Should PE cladding be banned? The Grenfell Tower fire and the highway collapse may have been outliers, and there are plenty of other fire safety features that might be able to stop an out-of-control PE-fueled fire. And yet, building owners do have a duty of care to ensure the safety of visitors and residents, and after the devastation at Grenfell, one might argue the use of flammable cladding presents a foreseeable risk.