WASHINGTON — State fire officials are asking two government agencies to require labels on polyurethane foam furniture warning consumers that the foam can catch fire quickly and release toxic gases.
The National Association of State Fire Marshals wants the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to require those labels on furniture, similar to labels that foam makers include with the PU they sell to furniture makers.
The fire marshals are focusing their attention on the furniture makers, but they consider PU to be the key element in why such fires spread quickly and release toxic gases, said Donald Bliss, fire marshal for the state of New Hampshire and chairman of NASFM's consumer products safety committee.
``We think the polyurethane industry is very properly warning its customers of the hazards, but it's the manufacturers of the furniture that are not passing that on to consumers,'' he said.
Still, the plastics industry argues that consumer labeling would be a mistake because fire deaths are declining thanks to voluntary industry action, and looking only at PU ignores other factors such as furniture design that determine how a fire spreads.
``A focus on any one component, whether it is polyurethane or not, has nothing to do with fire
performance of a piece of furniture,'' said Lew Freeman, vice president of government affairs at the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Orlando, Fla.-based NASFM has been trying unsuccessfully since 1993 to convince CPSC to develop national standards for upholstered furniture flammability based on tough California rules. The agency is focusing on adding fire-resistant chemicals to furniture fabric.
The fire marshals argue that, because of California's standards, residents of that state are just one-seventh as likely to die in a fire involving upholstered furniture than the rest of the country.
But the plastics industry notes that fire-death rates are declining across the country, which could be attributed to a decline in smoking, greater use of smoke detectors or other factors.
The furniture industry's voluntary program calls for a warning label that says some upholstered furniture materials burn rapidly and emit toxic gases, without mentioning PU. But Bliss said most of the country's furniture makers do not adhere to the program.
``We don't disagree that a lot of other factors influence flammability, but what we are concerned with is, in the absence of a national standard, for the average piece of furniture, it is more likely than not that the polyurethane will be ignited,'' he said. ``The public should be made aware of that.''
Burning PU raises room temperature very quickly to the point at which a room's entire contents catch fire, NASFM said.
Untreated PU foam emits large amounts of carbon monoxide and cyanide when it burns, NASFM said.
But SPI said all materials release carbon monoxide when they burn, and most fire deaths are caused by exposure to CO, not other gases.
A CPSC spokesman could not say when the agency will make a decision on furniture flammability standards, but said it could take several years.
The FTC received the NASFM petition, and is considering the the claims, a spokeswoman said June 17, but she declined further comment.