Diane Denton has lit a slow fire under the government. Three years ago, having observed the distress of parents whose children burned themselves with cigarette lighters, Mrs. Denton petitioned the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) to make lighters child-proof.
Denton, a nurse at a Louisville, Ky., hospital, galvanized local fire chiefs and grieving parents to support her petition. She continuously sent the government grim reminders of cigarette lighter fires at mobile homes and apartment buildings.
Finally, this past March the CPSC gave the cigarette lighter industry advance notice that it was starting the process of formulating rules requiring the 500 million lighters produced each year be child-resistant - the way aspirin bottles and other potentially harmful products have been redesigned.
The aim of the regulations will be to cut down on a daunting death toll. The CPSC estimates in 1985 that 180 people, including 120 infants (mostly under the age of five), died as a result of lighter-induced fires started by children. That year, children caused 7,800 fires, 860 injuries, and $60.5 million in property damage.
Despite these statistics, it will take another three years to write regulations governing lighters such as Bic, Scripto, Cricket, and Zippo. The process of producing a child-resistant lighter, which will take six years in all, is disappointing to consumer groups who hoped something could be done sooner.
Mary Ellen Fise, product-safety director of the Consumer Federation of America, complains, ``The wheels are turning, but ever so slowly. In the meantime, kids keep playing with cigarette lighters.''
One of the reasons it has taken the CPSC so long to act, says commissioner Terence Scanlon, ``is because we started from scratch'' in order to circumvent industry lawsuits that objected that the commission had not developed enough background information to warrant regulations.
Initially, the CPSC sent posters to firehouses around the country asking firemen to report fires started with lighters. The commission then investigated 277 fires known to have been started with lighters to determine whether the lighters were faulty, what kinds of lighters used, and how old the children involved were.
The study found that 96 percent of those cigarette lighters were disposable butane models - about the same percentage as are sold nationally. In 90 percent of the incidents, the children using the lighters were under six years old, primarily aged three and four. Boys outnumbered girls by a four-to-one ratio.
The agency then began the difficult process of trying to determine how to child-proof a lighter. The first roadblock was to build a cigarette lighter that replicated a commercial lighter, but that did not emit a flame, since children would be playing with it.
The CPSC solution was to miniturize the technology used to make garage doors open electronically. Thus, when a child successfully flicked a cigarette lighter on, a radio beacon instead of a flame would be triggered, sending a signal to a CPSC researcher.
According to Mr. Scanlon, the industry is currently working on new and improved lighter models. In addition, several inventors have come up with patented models that they claim are already child-resistant.
``If something is devised that is effective and economically feasible, we would consider it,'' says David Baker, Washington counsel to the Lighter Association.
For the most part the industry has resisted the attempt at regulation. It hired a Washington research company, Heiden Associates, which submitted a report suggesting that any governmental regulation that increased the cost of lighters might make people turn to matches, which it claimed are riskier than lighters.
When lighters did cause fires, Heiden blamed many of the incidents on lack of parental supervision. And it claimed that many of the children involved may have been under emotional stress or living in an unstable family environment. It even declared that some children were ``suffering from mild or serious clinical disorders.''
Not true, says Dr. Richard Narkewitcz, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. ``The children are the same as any other children,'' he says. They are attracted to lighters which they see their parents operating. ``To the children it looks like a nice sparkling little toy.''
Denton says that children are drawn to the bright colors used to make lighters. Lighters also emit sparks, like a lot of toys. In fact, some lighters are now shaped like toys. And, Denton says, ``Children don't understand that they can catch on fire themselves.''
The lighter companies are starting to come around. At first they required all members of their association to print a warning on the packaging that the lighters should be kept away from children. In June, they offered to provide the CPSC with surrogate lighters.
``Right now we feel much better about industry cooperation,'' says James Hoebel, program manager for the safety commission.
Even while the research goes on, however, the death toll continues. Denton's friends continue to send her newspaper clippings of children burned by fires started with cigarette lighters. She hopes that the government will act soon, putting an end to the clippings. ``In the long run, if we succeed the benefits are unbelievable.''