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 October 12, 2003
House & Home
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Government considers tougher fire retardants on furniture
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- After three decades of debate, furniture makers say they favor tougher fire-safety standards, but argue that writing any regulations is complex because of the different types of products and people�s habits.

Inside the sofas, love-seats and mattresses that the industry produces is highly flammable foam, blamed for adding to the intensity and speed of thousands of fires. It�s the same material that contributed to the fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick that killed 100 people.

The foam is made from petroleum and emits toxic fumes when burned.

The National Fire Protection Association reports upholstered furniture caused 11,600 fires in the United States that killed 543 people in 1998, the latest year for which data are available. Of those who died, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said one-third of them were children under 15. The commission calculated the total �societal cost� of upholstered furniture fires that year at $2.4 billion.

Despite the risks, consumers are largely unaware to the dangers of foam in furniture, The Providence Journal reported. �Nobody knows that the foam is solid gasoline that incinerates entire families in less time than it takes for the fire department to arrive at the blaze,� said Whitney Davis, director of the California-based Children�s Coalition for Fire Safe Mattresses.

Furniture manufacturers have understood that danger for decades.  In the 1970s, the industry voluntarily adopted a standard to make mattresses resistant to ignition by smoldering cigarettes. Most makers put the information on tags they attach to their products.  The standards do not require products to resist ignition by open flame, such as from matches, candles or lighters.

Firefighters and consumer advocates want manufacturers to meet an open-flame standard�similar to regulations adopted by England in 1988. The National Association of State Fire Marshals petitioned the consumer product agency in 1993 for the change. The agency is still considering it.

Andy Counts, chief executive officer of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, said many factors have complicated adoption of a national standard. They are: Flame retardants have been inconsistent to in providing resistance to open-flame or cigarette ignition; and the retardants could pose threats to the environment and to people�s health.

�Like the other participants, we have at times felt confounded by the complexity of this issue and the elusiveness of a straightforward, effective solution that would account for the variety of fabrics, cushioning materials, ignition sources, and patterns of human behavior underlying this hazard,� Counts wrote in May to the consumer agency.


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