Polyurethane foam focus of concerns

Year after college fire, critics continue to warn of hazard posed by material

January 21, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. - There are sprinklers in the dormitories now, one of the safety measures taken after an early-morning fire a year ago yesterday killed three students and injured 58 others at Seton Hall University.

But along with installing sprinklers, Seton Hall did something else. It cleared its lounges and gathering places of polyurethane foam furniture similar to the couch where the fire started.

The fire at Seton Hall focused renewed attention, at least briefly, on the issue of mandatory sprinklers, leading New Jersey to require them in college dormitory rooms. But almost no attention has been given to an issue that has been a source of controversy among fire experts and manufacturers for more than a decade - the millions of pieces of furniture made of polyurethane foam that lead to 540 fire-related deaths and thousands of injuries each year.

Critics, including the National Association of State Fire Marshals, say polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture poses well-known fire hazards. They have urged the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to adopt the first national, mandatory fire retardancy standards for the furniture. But no changes have been enacted, because of opposition from the furniture industry and its supporters in Congress, and because there is little sense of urgency among federal and state lawmakers, advocates of new standards say.

Fire experts say the blaze at Seton Hall was so lethal because it ignited the couch's polyurethane foam, a highly flammable, petroleum-based substance common in cushions. The burning foam pushes a room's temperature up to 1,500 degrees and often ignites anything around, including people. Perhaps 95 percent of the upholstered furniture in U.S. homes contains this foam, according to the product safety commission.

"It's the most dangerous product in the home," said Donald P. Bliss, vice president of the fire marshals association. He said federal government statistics showed that the furniture containing this foam caused more fire deaths and injuries than any other item in homes across the nation.

Bliss said such fires were potentially lethal and similar to gasoline fires. "It's very, very hot," he said, "and it very quickly brings a room to flashover," meaning that all the contents of a room suddenly burst into flames.

But representatives of the furniture industry oppose the tougher standards for home furniture being advocated by some critics. A spokesman for the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, Russell Batson, said the association was working with the product safety commission and would consider endorsing a flame-retardancy standard "that is workable, that's effective, that doesn't destroy the affordability of furniture, or present more chemical risks."

The issue is to come before the commission in the spring when the agency once again considers tougher standards.

But as Seton Hall paused yesterday to remember last year's tragedy, safety standards for furniture seemed to be drawing less attention than sprinklers and smoke detectors.

Essex County arson investigators are still gathering evidence in hopes of proving that the blaze was intentionally set. In a statement Jan. 3, Donald C. Campolo, the prosecutor, said investigators had established that the fire was started by an open flame that came into contact with combustible material on one of three couches in a third-floor lounge. All three couches had polyurethane foam cushions and were incinerated, investigators say.

Besides installing the sprinklers and replacing the furniture, Seton Hall made other fire-safety changes. They include bans on candles, skillets, toaster ovens and halogen lamps in dorm rooms; a three-year program to provide more fire-resistant mattresses; and fines up to $500 for students who commit violations such as tampering with fire-safety equipment, failing to leave a dorm during a fire alarm or using an unauthorized appliance.

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