Furniture flame retardants may not stifle deadliest home fires

(Reuters Health) – Targeting the flammability of smoking materials like cigarettes, pipes and cigars, rather than fireproofing all furniture with hazardous chemicals, may be a more effective way of reducing the most deadly residential fires, a U.S. study concludes.

Although fires that start on furniture account for only 2.2% of residential fires, they carry significantly higher odds than others for injury and death, researchers report in the American Journal of Public Health. And among these furniture fires, those ignited by smoking materials are 3.4 times more likely to be lethal than those caused by open flames like candles.

“The fire safety standards for furniture ought to address the most dangerous types of furniture fires,” said Kathryn Rodgers, a staff scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, who led the study.

Historically, furniture flammability regulations in the U.S. targeted ignition from open flame heat sources, Rodgers told Reuters Health by email. “However, in order to meet this standard, manufacturers added toxic flame-retardant chemicals to furniture foam, resulting in widespread exposures to these chemicals.”

Regulations trace back to a 1975 California rule that, in the absence of a national furniture flammability standard, became common for residential furniture over time, the study team writes. The rule required the interior filling of furniture to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds before igniting. Since then, however, flame retardants have been associated with serious health concerns such as cancer, neurotoxicity and reproductive and developmental issues.

In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted in favor of a rule to ban certain flame retardants from upholstered furniture, mattresses, children’s products and electronic casings.

To gauge the effect of the longstanding open-flame standard on deaths in furniture-related household fires, Rodgers and colleagues analyzed death and injury data from 34,000 residential fires in the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System from 2003 to 2016.

They compared the outcomes from fires that started on upholstered furniture ignited by smoking materials versus those ignited by open flames. They also looked at smoke detector presence, fire spread, season, time of day, and human-related factors such as age, disability and intoxication when the fire started.

Among all the residential fires, 360 resulted in deaths, 565 had severe injuries and 2,246 had less-severe injuries. Of the fires resulting in death, 95, or 26%, involved smoking materials as a heat source, as compared with 30 fires, or 8%, started by open flames.

Among the 50 deaths involving fires that started on upholstered furniture, 38 were caused by smoking materials, as compared with 4 started by open flames.

The 733 furniture fires made up just over 2% of all residential fires yet resulted in 14% of deaths, the study team notes. When a furniture fire was started by smoking materials rather than open flames, the odds of injury doubled and the odds of death more than tripled, they calculate.

Injuries were also more likely when people didn’t have a working smoke detector, were intoxicated or had a disability.

“Manufacturers have been needlessly adding toxic chemicals to furniture in order to address a risk that can be met with non-toxic measures,” Rodgers said. “Everyday exposure to flame retardants has impacted the health of millions of Americans and resulted in billions of dollars in healthcare costs.”

The study team notes that Massachusetts saw a 28% reduction in the odds of a home fire caused by cigarettes compared with fires started by other causes after it implemented a fire-safe cigarette law in 2008 requiring cigarettes to extinguish themselves when not being frequently inhaled.

The researchers also point to ongoing public health efforts to reduce smoking overall as potentially more effective ways to target smoking materials, rather than furniture, to reduce smoking-related fires.

“Residential structure fires pose a significant risk to life and property,” said David Butry of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“In recent years, states have adopted fire standard compliant cigarettes (‘FSC cigarettes’) that are made with a wrapping paper that contains regularly-spaced bands, which increases the likelihood of self-extinguishment,” he said by email, noting that these seem to be most effective at reducing fires in places with a lot of heavy smokers.

SOURCE: bit.ly/2Kyk0rY American Journal of Public Health, online August 7, 2019.

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