Polyurethane foam is found in upholstered furniture like couches, in mattresses, pillows and beneath carpets. Foam has been used for decades despite the hazards associated with the material called “solid gasoline” by many fire marshals. When ignited, foam burns quickly at temperatures above 1400 degrees. As polyurethane burns, toxic hydrogen cyanide gases are emitted. Polyurethane disasters include the 1970 fire in a French nightclub decorated with foam. That fire killed 146 people. In the United States, more than 800 people die annually in fires caused when the first item ignited was upholstered furniture, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Those tragedies continue because there is no national regulation for flame retardant foam in furniture. Safety advocates support adoption of California’s 1970 standard.
It has been known for decades in the furniture industry that the design and manufacture of upholstered furniture with polyurethane foam is unsafe. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has estimated that over 800 people die every year in fires where upholstered furniture was the first item ignited. In just a matter of minutes a sofa fire can turn a living room into an inferno which fills the house with thick dark smoke and toxic gases which inhibit and prevent the occupants from escaping the fire. Temperatures from upholstered furniture fires can exceed 1400 degrees within minutes. If you are in prison, a hospital, on an airplane, living in California or the United Kingdom, your chances of surviving a furniture fire are dramatically higher as fire retardant foam is required in these places. In California, a state that adopted flame retardant foam standards “California Foam” in the 1970’s, there has been a 25% drop in deaths involving upholstered furniture beyond the national average.
Polyurethane has been dubbed “solid gasoline” by numerous fire marshals. Once ignited, the foam will burn rapidly at temperatures in excess of 1400 degrees. Most significantly, when it decomposes and burns, it emits hydrogen cyanide gases, a fatal asphyxiant. Hydrogen cyanide produces anoxia (absence of oxygen). When it is combined with carbon monoxide, the effects of the hydrogen cyanide are multiplied.
Statistics clearly indicate that the greatest threat to building occupants is the spread and exposure to toxic gases. This becomes highly significant where the victims of the fire were attempting to escape, but due to the effects of the toxic gases the normal escape responses become impaired and, accordingly, increase the lethal aspect of a fire. The limited escape time and the failure to appreciate the extreme hazards of rapid flame spread and propagation leads, often times, to tragic consequences.
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