A nine-year campaign by firefighters to reduce fire deaths from upholstered furniture may result in tougher rules on polyurethane foam padding, if industry groups and firefighters reach agreement on a mandatory national standard.
Some participants in the talks between industry groups and firefighters suggest that the upholstered furniture proposal could require flame-retardant chemicals for foam.
Upholstered furniture fires killed 420 people in 1998, the last year for which figures are available. Deaths have dropped about 70 percent since the early 1980s, but recent data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Bethesda, Md., suggests the decline may be leveling off.
Beyond wanting to reduce fire deaths, those involved in the talks point to several reasons why industry groups now are willing to consider a mandatory national standard to replace a 26-year-old program of voluntary furniture industry self-regulation. They cite increasing threats from liability lawsuits, the desire to pre-empt a strict new standard that California is considering, and the growth of furniture imports.
``We're very optimistic that we'll have consensus on a real, scientifically based standard,'' said Don Bliss, state fire marshal for New Hampshire and vice chairman of the Washington-based National Association of State Fire Marshals.
Bliss said it's too soon to say if the standard will require flame-retardant PU foam, but he said firefighters will not support a standard without it.
NASFM has pushed for tougher standards since 1994, but the effort has been controversial.
The debate is broader than simply adding flame retardant to PU foam, and could include performance standards for the entire piece of furniture.
But PU foam is central: NASFM argues that PU foam burns very quickly and is the most important contributor to deadly flashover in residential furniture fires.
PU industry groups said tests they have run question whether treating foam provides much additional protection. They said they may not oppose treating foam, as long as all materials are treated equally.
``It would seem that putting flame retardant into the PU foam certainly can't hurt,'' said Dick Mericle, executive director of the Alliance for the Polyurethanes Industry in Arlington, Va. ``You can do some things that don't cost a lot of money that do what the fire marshals say, which is to provide a lot of redundancy. ... The whole thing is to delay the time to flashover.''
The Polyurethane Foam Association, in Wayne, N.J., said requiring flame-retardant foam is fine, as long as all materials meet similar requirements. Executive Director Lou Peters said other issues, like furniture design, need to be considered.
API's Mericle added: ``To single out PU foam as the only thing that needs to be looked at is unfair.''
Furniture makers said they support treating PU foam, in part because treated foam is a ``drop-in'' to their manufacturing process that doesn't raise assembly and labor costs for furniture makers.
Russ Batson, vice president of government affairs at the American Furniture Manufacturers Association in High Point, N.C., said, ``Frankly, it's cost effective and not disruptive to our manufacturing process. We're aware of differences of opinion on the efficacy of FR foam, but we've heard from the fire marshals that even small changes make a difference in flashover,'' Batson said.
He said the foam industry's position of treating all materials equally is ``fine conceptually,'' but it can be tougher to make other components flame resistant, and that could upset the consensus needed for a national standard.
``You get into so many complexities when you get into treating everything else, that the consensus will erode,'' Batson said.
He also said that treating PU foam would not raise costs so much that manufacturers would switch to other filling materials.
The parties plan to meet in November, and Batson predicts they eventually will reach an agreement that they can present to the CPSC. The safety commission held a briefing Sept. 24 on the latest draft of its proposed rules.
``I think that you're going to have enough consensus from enough of the relevant parties that the [CPSC] will feel justified in moving forward,'' Batson said. ``There will be things we won't be crazy about, but the fire marshals won't be crazy about [some things] either.''
There may also be a legislative push: Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., has expressed interest in furniture flammability legislation, several sources said.
And California legislators threw their own curve into the mix this summer with legislation banning one of the main flame retardants used in PU foam because of toxicity concerns.
Batson said API has been instrumental in getting the negotiating parties to the table.
Mericle said API's members, mainly large chemical companies, are increasingly concerned about being named in product-liability lawsuits because they have deeper pockets than the much smaller companies in the furniture industry, Mericle said.