States seek to limit building materials that give off toxic fumes

Several states are moving to regulate materials used in new building construction, as concern grows over the number of fatalities attributed not to flames, but to the toxic fumes produced by fires.

Because of the growing number of synthetic materials that go into new construction, building materials designed for large, public buildings should be tested for their toxicity, says State Sen. Charles Butts of Ohio, chairman of a task force on fire safety.

The results of such tests, he says, should be recorded in a ''toxicity data bank.'' Builders and architects would then be able to make better decisions on what materials they use.

Liability laws established in recent court decisions on several major fires will compel builders to buy less-toxic building materials, Senator Butts adds. Architects have come before his task force to ask for help, he says.

''They end up wearing the liability hat, because they chose a particular building material.'' As builders purchase their materials on the basis of safety , manufacturers will be compelled to come up with less-toxic substances.

He points to the example of PPG Industries in Pittsburgh. Concern over the toxicity of certain plastic panels it produced led the company to develop a new type of plastic for the panels. The new panels are much less toxic, produce less smoke, and are nonignitable. They have been chosen for use on subway cars in San Francisco.

''We now require (product labeling) to determine the flammability, flame spread, and ignition of a product,'' Butts says. ''But since most deaths don't result from the fire spreading, (determining the toxicity) is important as well.''

Senator Butts's task force includes 10 legislators from several states, and has held hearings in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. After a final hearing next month in New York, the task force will draft final recommendations, which will be made available to all state legislatures.

Yet members of the plastics industry think legislation is premature. For instance, Ray Durazo, executive director of the Industry Coalition for Fire Safety, says legislation was introduced in Connecticut last year ''banning anything more toxic than wood.''

Considering toxicity by itself is inappropriate, he says. For example, one manufacturer recently developed a new coating for wire cables. ''If you were to analyze it on the basis of combustion toxicity (how toxic it is when it burns), '' he says, ''you would not use it. But the reason it is being used is its high resistance to temperature.''

He says the thrust of the various legislative proposals ''would lead one to believe that combustion toxicity is the most important factor in preventing fire deaths. (But) detection, suppression, and education are 100 percent more important,'' he says.

Yet others inside the plastics industry agree that combustion toxicity should be addressed. One industry scientist, who asked not to be identified, says it is important to ''build an environment that is less toxic.'' He advocates measuring the toxicity of products and creating the data bank.

And, he said, it's important to get started now. ''If we wait for the plastics industry'' to move on this, ''we'll get the lowest common denominator.''

Phil Harrington, an aide to state senator John Dunn of New York, says several individual states have considered addressing toxic smoke. New York commissioned a study testing the various toxicity tests last year. The secretary of state's office has taken the results of that study, and will release recommendations for revising the state building codes later this month.

Mr. Harrington says California, Texas, Maryland, and Massachusetts have considered legislation based on the toxicity of smoke.

The federal government is also studying the problem. Richard Bukowski, the research chief for smoke and toxic gases at the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg, Md., says the NBS is developing computer models to track all aspects of a fire.

''You can't just look at the toxicity value of a substance,'' he says. Some materials are very toxic, but will not ignite. Yet all kinds of factors can be put into a computer model, he says.

Based on experiments conducted by NBS, the computer is being programmed to simulate a fire in a room, and predict how specific substances will burn, how quickly they will ignite, the toxicity of the smoke, and how the flames and smoke will spread, as well as how individuals in specific locations will be affected.

Mr. Bukowski says the models are very sophisticated, and will enable the user to see the smoke and flames spreading on the computer screen. ''The computer graphics are almost as complicated as the physics behind the experiments,'' he says.

Currently the model can handle five or six rooms on a floor. But Bukowski says in three to four years, it will be able to project multiple floors and entire buildings.

This will enable architects to simulate fires, and fire investigators to test theories. ''Instead of guessing at standards, building-code people will be able to set standards according to the models. ''It's almost a revolution in fire protection,'' he says.

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