Walk into a department store in a few years and you may well find something radically different in adult pajamas and nightgowns. What's new under the florescents won't be style or fabric: it will be that tomorrow's sleepwear will be less likely to burn than today's. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has reaffirmed its intent next year to start the process of developing a voluntary standard so that at least some sleepwear for adults would be flame retardant - that is, if it began to burn it would stop once the flame that ignited it was removed. The commission is being repeatedly prodded by the American Association of Retired Persons to develop an effective standard, and to do it with dispatch.
If such a voluntary standard were to be agreed upon, it is not clear whether all adult sleepwear ultimately would meet it, or whether some would and some would not.
``Quite possibly,'' says James Hoebel, manager of the federal commission's Fire Hazards Program, the standard would ``be based on the children's sleepwear standard, which has been shown to be effective in preventing injuries.'' This standard requires that children's sleeping garments, if exposed to fire, must stop burning when the source of flame is removed.
The idea is to do for adults, especially the elderly, what has been done for children: reduce the risk of serious fires that involve sleepwear. In the early 1970s the commission required that all children's sleepwear be flame retardant; since then the number of youngsters killed annually in fires has fallen almost to zero.
Last year, by contrast, 275 Americans of all ages were killed and 3,000 injured in fires that involved clothing, notes AARP. About three-fourths of the fatalities ``occur to people that are over 65,'' says Hoebel, ``and most of these involve nightwear.'' Commission chairman Terrence Scanlon says these figures show that for the elderly ``the problem is significant.''
The styles of nightclothing most at risk of catching fire from stoves or fireplaces are those that many adults favor: long, loose-fitting sleeves and flowing robes.
As the number of elderly Americans continues to climb, the urgency of the problem increases. Yet many experts think the public is not alert to the problem. ``This is sort of a hidden hazard,'' says Patricia Powers, a public-policy analyst at AARP. ``We're talking about preventable injuries and deaths.''
Hoebel says it is too early to develop a firm timetable for achieving voluntary flame-retardant standards in conjunction with garment manufacturers. ``But in my own mind,'' he says, ``I think it would be reasonable to think in terms of a couple of years.''
AARP says that much of the spadework already was done when the children's standard was enacted. But Patricia Powers notes that seven or eight years often are required to put voluntary standards into effect, and that one year already has elapsed without completion yet of a commission pamphlet designed to inform consumers about sleepwear hazards. AARP's greatest concern is that efforts to reach a voluntary standard with industry will drag on several years without achieving success.
In recent years many consumer advocates have been skeptical of what they consider the commission's relative inactivity on behalf of consumers. Last week that skepticism was refueled when Scanlon reassigned his agency's compliance chief. Scanlon said he took the action to solve management problems; critics charge him with an effort to weaken the agency.
Some disagreement exists among consumers as to whether flame-retardant garments are as soft as untreated nightwear; some charge that chemicals added to some garments make them smell. Other consumers, however, say most such garments have no odor, and that they are at least adequately soft.