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Michael M. Guerra
2011 A Thompson Reuters service printed in Texas Monthly
Polyurethane Foam Furniture Flammability
By Michael M. Guerra
The National Association of State Fire Marshals found that fire killed more Americans than all natural disasters combined, with 82% of the civilian fire fatalities occurring in the home. Almost 3,000 Americans burned to death in their homes. Another 14,000 Americans suffered serious injuries due to fire in their homes.

No matter what the ignition source of the fire, in most cases, a fuel load has to be present for the fire to cause catastrophic injuries. Unfortunately, the fuel load most often associated with fatal residential fires is upholstered furniture, often filled with untreated polyurethane foam.

For decades, polyurethane foam has been used as filler in upholstered furniture. It can be found in almost every home in America. It is used as padding in sofas, couches, chairs, loveseats, pillows, and mattresses, as well as for padding under carpets. However, as far back as 1972, the federal government reported that foam flammability standards were needed due to foam's extremely flammable characteristics. At about the same time, California adopted a statewide foam flammability standard. But according to quotes attributed to Maine's State Fire Marshal, John Dean, who also served as head of the National Fire Marshals Association, the furniture industry has been successful at derailing all attempts at federal furniture flammability regulation since then.

Polyurethane foam that has not been treated with flame retardant chemicals is referred to as "solid gasoline" by fire experts. Some experts compare sitting on an untreated foam cushion to sitting on a bag of gasoline. When untreated foam is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly is the toxic gas produced by burning polyurethane foam. When it burns, foam emits hydrogen cyanide gas. Hydrogen cyanide gas causes reduced oxygen, and when combined with carbon monoxide, the effects are particularly deadly. Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Well known polyurethane foam fire disasters include a 1970 French nightclub fire that killed 146 people. The club had been decorated with foam. More recently, the February 20, 2003, disaster at the Great White rock concert in Rhode Island killed 100 people and injured nearly 200 more. In that fire, foam was the fuel load that carried the fire. Fire experts who studied the dynamic of the 2003 Rhode Island fire stated that the amount of foam installed as a sound absorber on the walls of the nightclub equaled about 13 gallons of gasoline. The foam fueled the spread of flames so quickly that the concertgoers had merely a few panic filled seconds to escape alive. One hundred did not.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), more than 800 people die annually in fires involving upholstered furniture, roughly 14 Americans per week. This type of fire kills more people than any other type of fire, accounting for over 20% of the national fire fatalities annually. This tragic loss of life continues because furniture manufactures are not being held accountable for using untreated foam. Although some national furniture manufacturers are now voluntarily conforming to the California standard, the CPSC estimates that over 50% of the annual foam filled furniture fatalities could be prevented if all furniture sold in America used flame retardant foam.

According to expert witness Gordon Damant, the person predominantly responsible for drafting California's foam flammability standard, Technical Bulletin 117, furniture that does not meet the standards can be considered unreasonably dangerous. Upholstered furniture that meets the standard is less likely to ignite rapidly and, if ignited, is less likely to burn quickly or to sustain burning.

This photo is of a polyurethane foam cushion that was treated with flame retardant chemicals. The couch was exposed to a fire ignited by a defective space heater.

Therefore, product liability causes of action should be considered when evaluating home fire cases that result in death or catastrophic injury if the first ignited fuel source for the fire was upholstered furniture.

Michael Guerra is a personal injury lawyer with Guerra Mask LLP in McAllen, Texas.

 
 
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