DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) - World renowned U.D. researcher Alex Morgan is trying to give people more time to put out a fire or at least time enough to get out of a burning building alive. For 17 years he's been working with flame retardants and some of that work involves foam.
By any estimate, polyurethane foam is incredible kindling, not only does it light and burn easily, it's everywhere, in your home, your office, in upholstered furniture, in your mattresses, your pillows, and under your carpet.
Within three minutes, a cigarette left on a couch cushion or a mattress can ignite a flashover, a 1400 degree fireball you cannot survive.
The National Fire Protection Association says more people die in fires that begin in upholstered furniture or mattress bedding than from any other source. Put tons of foam in a burning sofa "superstore" and you have a lethal inferno.
Such a blaze in Charleston, South Carolina in 2007 killed nine firefighters, the greatest single loss of firefighters since terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. Another example is what happened in 1999, Rhode Island nightclub fire. Pyrotechnics ignited foam soundproofing on the walls and ceilings of the club.
Within three minutes, the building was engulfed. A hundred people died.
Morgan told us, "In every case when they mocked up the fire to try to figure out why it got out of control it was always the foam igniting it what led to the fire losses getting that bad. It's a flammable material. It's got great cushion properties, it's got sound insulation properties, it's a great product but it does have a fire issue.
In 1975, 24 years before the Rhode Island disaster, a government commission urged states to better protect you from foam fires. California lead the way, establishing what's known as "TB 117." It required furniture foam to withstand exposure to a small flame, like a candle, for 12 seconds.
That nationwide standard has not changed in 37 years.
To meet the standard and keep costs down, , manufacturers turned to fire retardants, special chemicals they said gave people a 15-fold increase in their time to escape alive. They packed up to two pounds of retardants into sofa, mattresses, and pillow foam and called the chemicals both "safe and effective." But now those claims are under fire.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission determined the "TB 117" standard provides "no meaningful protection" from deadly fires. Why? The National Fire Protection Association says smoldering materials, like cigarettes, not an open flame, are the leading cause of upholstered furniture fires.
The CPSC also said many fire retardants pose "unnecessary" health risks, including cancer, and are especially toxic to children. There's even residue in the dust in our homes. These findings prompted the governor of California to call for an overhaul of "TB 117."
"The field has a lot of attention from an environmental perspective but the fire safety side is what I'm a little bit concerned been getting ignored here," said Morgan.
"I'd like to think we could find a middle ground where we can come up with a better environmentally friendly product and provide a level of fire safety and not have to choose one or the other but that's a political decision kind of above my pay scale," he added.
For now, Morgan guides customers who are trying to pass regulatory tests. He says he can't show us his ongoing work for them, but he did demonstrate for us how polyurethane foam burns without flame retardants and what makes it so dangerous. He used an open flame to simulate what happens when something like a space heater ignites foam. It burns quickly and intensely, and it drips and flows unlike wood for instance.
Morgan is willing to do the research to develop new, safer, flame resistant foam if consumers like you are willing to fund it.
Morgan told 2 NEWS On Assignment, "I'd like to think I could have some input but I know at the end of the day if society says I don't think it's a risk I'll go find something else to work on."
"But," we asked, "Isn't that troublesome as a scientist? "
Morgan responded, "It does bother me a little bit I mean someone who does the fire science as I do as much as I've tested over the years. I know how flammable things are and but again most people don't. It's not something we typically think about. We're probably one of the few species on the planet that has lost its fear of fire."
There are things you can do right now to better educate yourself. Read the labels on your furniture, pillows, and mattresses. Make note of where the items were manufactured. Some countries outside the U.S. don't give this issue much attention.
We found IKEA, Herman Miller, Serta, Baby Bjorn, and Boppy are among the big companies offering products that don't contain flame retardants. If you already have a couch or a mattress you can better protect yourself simply by washing your hands. If you do it four times a day, you can effectively wash away a lot of the residue.
And do not smoke when
you are sleepy.
The following links can help you explore the burning truth about polyurethane foam and fire further.
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