House & Home

Today’s homes burn faster than ones in the past, and your furniture may be to blame

More than 1.2 billion pounds of highly flammable polyurethane foam is produced every year in the United States. “It is the cushioning material of choice in nearly all upholstered furniture and mattresses,” according to the Polyurethane Foam Association. “Underfoot, it is used as carpet cushion.”
More than 1.2 billion pounds of highly flammable polyurethane foam is produced every year in the United States. “It is the cushioning material of choice in nearly all upholstered furniture and mattresses,” according to the Polyurethane Foam Association. “Underfoot, it is used as carpet cushion.” Bigstock

Olathe Fire Captain John Myers figures that 30 years ago, when his crew responded to a house fire within six minutes of the call for help, they had another 10 to 15 minutes to put it out before it became too dangerous for the crew to enter the home.

Today, houses burn faster, hotter and more toxic. “Now we show up in six minutes, we’ve only got two or three minutes before we’ve got to get on top of it,” Myers says.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments respond to a home fire every 86 seconds, and a civilian fire-death is reported every two hours and 40 minutes.

To change this, consumers must educate themselves about what they put in their homes.

One reason homes burn faster and hotter now is the use of petroleum-based materials in furniture, drapes, rugs, clothing and toys, combined with laxer standards for flame retardance.

Polyurethane, the soft foam in furniture, is made of polyol and diisocyanate, a petroleum byproduct. When petroleum-based synthetics burn, they cast off toxic gases.

“It’s like gasoline vapors, and once it gets to that heated point — whooof,” Myers says, spreading his fingers and quickly moving his hands up and away from his body.

According to the Polyurethane Foam Association, more than 1.2 billion pounds of foam is produced every year in the United States. It “is all around us in our daily lives, in our homes, vehicles, schools and businesses,” states its website. “It is the cushioning material of choice in nearly all upholstered furniture and mattresses. Underfoot, it is used as carpet cushion.”

When Myers was a rookie firefighter, people were likely to have fewer furnishings in their homes as a whole, and the ones they did have were oftenmade with natural fibers, which burn slower.

Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of marketing for the American Home Furnishings Alliance, says natural fibers are still easily found in stores. She considers a solid wood frame the standard in a good piece of upholstered furniture.

But that doesn’t mean what’s beneath, or on top of, those natural fibers is also natural. A couch upholstered in linen may still be stuffed with polyurethane foam.

Polyurethane foam entered the market in the 1970s as a durable, affordable and hypoallergenic alternative to stuffings such as horsehair and natural latexes like Dunlop or Talalay, which are made from the sap of a rubber tree.

In 1975, California set a standard, known as code Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), requiring the use of flame-retardant chemicals in furniture and baby products stuffed with polyurethane. According to Green Science Policy Institute, the intent was for products to withstand exposure to an open flame for at least 12 seconds.

Not wanting to lose sales in California, manufacturers across North America adopted the state’s safety guidelines and began treating all polyurethane-filled furniture with flame retardants regardless of where it was sold. The flame retardants were not noted on labels.

Then, about a decade ago, the results of various health studies began rolling in. They weren’t good. They found that flame retardants could cause various health issues, including neurological problems, cancer and possibly even obesity.

So in 2013, California went back to the drawing board and changed TB 117, giving furniture manufacturers the option of using flame retardants on poly-fill products. Products no longer had to pass an open-flame test, but still had to pass a smolder performance test.

TB 117-2013 also stated that manufacturers could decide for themselves how they’d achieve the smolder test.

“Mattresses are the only furniture product required to pass the fire-retardant testing. A lot of our natural mattresses are subjected to those, too,” says Diane Gercke, owner of Eagles’ Rest stores in Mission and Lawrence. Mattresses are not covered under the term “furniture,” so they have their own set of standards..

Eagles’ Rest sells certified organic furniture as well as “conventional” furniture that’s chemical-free – other than the polyurethane foam, says Gercke.

Today, about 77 percent of manufacturers label their furniture, according to the website for the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) which also lists which manufacturers have removed toxic flame retardants entirely.

The noxious gases that flame retardants emit during fires can be deadly in their own right. The CEH notes that when foam with flame retardants burns, it produces much higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot and smoke. Those are the major contributors to fire death, not the actual fire. The same goes for poly-fill products without flame retardants, though to a lesser degree.

What this boils down to is that consumers have three options when buying home furnishings, carpet and drapes: Go all-natural, which is non-toxic and slow-burning, but often more expensive; buy products with polyurethane and a flame retardant, which can be toxic; or buy products with polyurethane and no flame retardants, which are not as toxic but burn faster and hotter.

Because few people can afford to replace their furnishings with all-natural fibers, Overland Park Fire Department spokesman Jason Rhodes says it’s more important than ever to know the fire safety rules, like those provided by the Red Cross (see sidebar).

Rhodes also advises homeowners and landlords to look into home sprinkler systems as a safety measure.

“All we want them to do is get out and call us,” he says.

Red Cross Fire Safety Rules

▪  Install smoke detectors in each bedroom and outside of sleeping spaces, as well as on each level of the home, including the basement.

▪  Vacuum smoke alarms regularly.

▪  Replace batteries at least once a year.

▪  Replace smoke alarms every 10 years.

▪  Know two ways out of every room.

▪  Practice an escape plan and establish a meeting place outside the home.

▪  If closed doors or handles are warm or smoke blocks your primary escape route, use your second way out. Never open doors that are warm to the touch.

▪  If you must escape through smoke, get low and go under the smoke to your exit. Close doors behind you.

▪  If smoke, heat or flames block your exit routes, stay in the room with doors closed. Place a wet towel under the door and call the fire department or 9-1-1. Open a window and wave a brightly colored cloth or flashlight to signal for help.

▪  Know how to safely operate a fire extinguisher.

▪  Yell “Fire!” several times and go outside right away. If you live in a building with elevators, use the stairs. Leave all your things where they are and save yourself.