Firefighters, furniture industry debate fire-safety requirements. Fume hazard is worse than flame, some argue

Lisa and Scott Siewert's new blue sofa and chintz chair probably won't catch fire if a careless guest drops a cigarette between the cushions. Their furniture was manufactured according the guidelines of an industry group that is working to make upholstery materials resistant to cigarette-ignited fires. But the International Association of Firefighters (IAF) does not think the test is stringent enough for furniture used in hotels, theaters, nursing homes, and other buildings that hold more than 50 people. The union is lobbying in four state legislatures for a mandatory test that will measure how quickly upholstered furniture catches fire when an open flame is next to it.

The voluntary test is ``less than desirable; the testing procedure currently used is inadequate,'' says Harold Schaitberger, director of the IAF's department of governmental affairs.

The upholstery industry is resisting the union's call for government regulations, according to Charles Carey, a co-chairman of the Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC), which formulated the voluntary guidelines. ``I can think of nothing but chaos with the manufacturers trying to comply with different regulations of various states,'' says Mr. Carey.

The firefighters association is backing bills in Maryland, Ohio, Florida, and Rhode Island that would require furniture testing based on a voluntary procedure currently used in California. The test, used in buildings holding 50 or more people, involves setting crumpled newspaper on fire inside a metal box 10 inches square. Two sides of the box are left open, exposing the back and seat of the chair or sofa to the flames. Measuring devices monitor flammability, smoke generation, and the type of gases emitted.

In UFAC's smoldering cigarette test - used on more than 90 percent of upholstered furniture made in the US, according to Mr. Carey - a lighted cigarette is set on top of materials used in making furniture. Finished furniture also is subjected to the test. Tags attached to finished items indicate flammability ratings.

Toxic gases that may be released as the material burns during the UFAC test are not measured. ``We don't have that available at UFAC,'' Carey says, although the tag attached to furniture certifying that it is UFAC-tested does warn that some upholstery materials release toxic gases when ignited.

James Hoebel, manager of the fire hazards program at the Consumer Products Safety Commission in Washington, D.C., says he is worried that the firefighters' lobbying for flammability tests may detract from research on ``the larger problem'' of cigarette-ignited fires.

Mr. Hoebel uses statistics to indicate the reason for his concern: In 1984, 870 people died in cigarette-ignited fires involving upholstered furniture, while 110 died in open flame ignited fires, he says. There were 14,500 cigarette-ignited fires reported in 1984, as opposed to 4,900 that were started by open flame, he adds.

Sheraton is one of several hotel companies that ask for fire-resistant furniture when placing their orders with manufacturers. Florence Henderson, project coordinator for the Sheraton Boston Hotel and Towers, purchases furniture for the hotel in compliance with the local city fire code, one of the strictest in the country.

``It doesn't limit our selections, the attractiveness of the furniture or the comfort,'' Ms. Henderson says, although she does complain about how quickly the fire-resistant foam inside chairs and sofas breaks down after a year of use. Furniture that resists fire costs about 15 to 20 percent more than untreated pieces, according to Henderson.

Hotel guests cannot detect any difference in fire-resistant furniture, she says: ``You can't tell from the appearance of the fabric [and] there is no discomfort.''

Patricia Sher, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, says she began interested in fire hazards relative to furniture and building materials when she read a paper relating toxic gases released from burning furniture to the high number of firefighters contracting unusual forms of cancer. She proposes that manufacturers of furniture and building materials submit a list of the toxic gases emitted when their products are set on fire in tests. If Delegate Sher's bill is passed, this information will be available from the state fire marshall's office.

California's voluntary testing program has resulted in ``a steady but marked decline in the annual number of furniture-caused fires, approximately 10 to 20 percent,'' says to Dan Terry, head of the State and Provincial Firefighters Association (a US-Canadian group). The significance of the decline is amplified, he indicates, in light of the fact that furniture usually is replaced only every 10 to 15 years.

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