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Benefits of Nonwovens in Improving Fire Safety of Upholstered Furniture and Bedding

By John McCormack | March 10, 2011

Residential fires involving upholstered furniture, mattresses and bedding continue to be a leading cause of fire death, injuries and property loss in the U.S. and may be caused by smoking materials, open flame or other ignition sources. Numerous strategies have been developed in attempting to drive down the incidence and severity of these fires including increased use of smoke detectors and sprinklers, candle tip-over standards and fire-safe cigarettes. One ongoing strategy involves the fire-hardening of consumer products themselves, through use of components and materials with improved fire resistance properties. Thisresults in finished consumer products less likely to ignite and burn quickly and has largely been driven by development of product or component fire performance standards, which are mandatory or voluntary and help to predict the performance of products when subjected to ignition sources.

In general, moststakeholders agree on an ongoing need for consumer products sold in the U.S. to meet specific, minimum, fire-performance standards. Disagreements occur primarily over costs and potential lost market share if the standards are too stringent. If there are standards, it is generally agreed they should improve fire safety, be as cost-effective (cheap) as possible, should not compromise consumer choice and aesthetic value and not introduce any new environmental hazards (during production, use and post-use)to consumers or the natural environment.In the past few years, there have been serious concerns raised by consumers and environmental advocacy groups and regulators regarding potential toxicity exposure to some components in home furnishings during normal use, especially fire retardants.This concern is especially acute for bedding products, which come into close contact with the body on a daily basis and has necessitated a reconsideration of how these products are constructed, while still maintaining and improving their fire safety.

The fire science community generally categorizes "furnishings"as: 1) upholstered furniture, 2) mattresses and futons and 3) bedding (bed clothing), which includes pillows, comforters, mattress pads and similar products.Various voluntary or mandatory standards exist for some of the products in these three categories but, due to historical realities in the way standards have been addressed, there are no consistent, comprehensive and effective fire standards for all furnishings products sold in the U.S.Thus, consumers are better protected against fires involving mattresses for instance, than they are from fires involving upholstered furniture or bed clothing (pillows and comforters, etc.).

The technologies now available to the textile and plastics industry allow components and products to be manufactured with fire safety properties far exceeding those of 30-40 years ago, when the first fire-performance standards were put in place in the U.S.In fact, regulations have lagged behind the technology available in the textiles and polymer market for these products and still do. Technological innovations in textiles have been driven by consumer demands for new products in the space and military programs, the transportation sector, correctional industry requirements andprotective clothing for firefighters as well as health care needs. Nonwoven products in particular are now poised to serve a major role in bringing to market more fire-safe consumer products in many areas. A brief discussion of the current and future impact of nonwovens in the three furnishings product areas follows.

Upholstered Furniture: In 1975, the State of California began enforcement of a fire standard known as Technical Bulletin 117 (T.B. 117) for upholstered furniture components. This standard mandated use of components meeting small flame-resistance and smolder-resistance requirements in the construction of furniture,Although this standard was only enforced in California, many national and foreign manufacturers selling furniture in the U.S.chose to comply with this law. In addition, a voluntary, cigarette smoldering standard for finished furniture products, known as Technical Bulletin 116 (T.B. 116), was put in place at the same time as Technical Bulletin 117. These two California standards, along with the Upholstered Furniture Action Council (U.F.A.C.) voluntary standard for smolder-resistant furniture, led to the slow but steady development of fabrics and fiber battings and pads, including non-wovens, with improved fire resistance, both from small flame (candles, matches and lighters) and smoldering (cigarette)fire sources. In addition, California began enforcement of a large flame standard for public occupancy furniture (Technical Bulletin 133), which became a de facto standard for all public occupancy furniture sold in the U.S. This standard tests the resistance of finished furniture products to large flame and relies heavily on the use of fire-blocking (barrier) barrier material in construction.

Beginning in 1993, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in response to a petition from the National Association of State Fire Marshals, began an initiative to write an upholstered furniture standard that would be enforced throughout the U.S. Currently, a draft test standard exists and the CPSC. has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (N.P.R.). This standard, as currently drafted, would require all upholstery fabric for use in upholstered furniture sold in the U.S. to besmolder-resistant.Any fabrics not meeting this smoldering test would be required to be used with a barrier material between the fabric and the underlying fillings in construction of furniture.This barrier material would be tested separately and certified to be both small-flame and smolder-resistant.Once this law is in place, it is likely to preempt California Technical Bulletin 117 and all American consumers would be protected to the same extent from residential upholstered furniture fires. This standard, by mandating the use of barrier materials in a significant percentage of furniture (i.e., furniturenot containing smolder-resistant fabrics),represents a golden opportunity for nonwoven products to contribute to the fire safety of furniture products.

Mattresses: Of the three product categories mentioned above, mattresses and futons are currently subject to the strictest and most comprehensive fire safety standards in the U.S.In 1973, the CPSC began enforcement of 16 CFR 1632,which mandated that all mattresses (and later all futons) sold in the U.S. be cigarette smolder-resistant. Standards for resistance to large flame sources were later developed for prison, hospital, dormitory and other public occupancy mattresses and in 2007, the CPSC enacted a large-flame standard for all residential mattresses.Because this standard is very stringent, based on the large ignition source used and the strict failure criteria,but does not require the use of fire-retardant foam or other filling materials, the standard can be met, in many mattress constructions, with flame resistant barriers. Development of the market for fire-resistant mattresses since the mid-2000s has demonstrated that barrier materials placed between the outer mattress ticking and the first layer of filling can enhance fire safety and not add exorbitant costs to the production of mattresses. In fact, fire resistant barriers have been routinely used to meet this standard for number of years. Also, the adoption of the national mattress flame resistance standard has led to the creation of an American Society of Testing and Materials voluntary component standard, A.S.T.M. D-7140-07, which can be used to screen fabrics and barrier materials for their potential to act as flame blocking barriers.This standard serves as a method of categorizing nonwoven barrier materials as to their efficacy for use inproducts such as mattresses, upholstered furniture and pillows to meet current of future standards.

Bed clothing: Currently there are no mandatory fire standards for bed clothing (comforters, pillows and mattress pads) sold in the U.S., with the exception of the 16 CFR 1632 cigarette standard for mattress pads. Bed clothing products currently in use tend to be highly susceptible to open flame ignition and can and typically do lead to fully involved mattress fires in bedrooms. The State of California, along with the CPSC and National Institute of Standards and Technology (N.I.S.T.)has conducted fundamental research on the flammability of these products and basic knowledge of how to impart improved fire resistance to these products has been gained through industry innovations.For bulk products such as pillows, fire resistance can be greatly improved by use of a more flame resistant ticking or a barrier material to cover combustible fillings.Nonwoven fire barriers may work well in these products and do not compromise aesthetic and comfort factors important to consumers. Use of nonwovens with enhanced fire resistance properties can also reduce the fire danger of "flat" products such as comforters and bedspreads, which typically already contain conventional nonwovens and thus would not require any re-engineering or re-designing to produce. In the case of mattress pads, use of fire-resistant nonwovens as fillings could help prevent or slow the propagation of fires beginning on flammable bed clothing to the core of the mattress, thus averting a worst-case fire scenario.
A cursory cost-benefit analysis of nonwoven materials for use in furnishings products in the three categories discussed, shows current successes and even greater potential for the following reasons:
1) Nonwoven battings and pads can be engineered to contain ratios of "fire-resistant" to "conventional" fibers and specific construction features and geometries, optimized for compliance with specific fire standards.
2) Costs associated with these nonwoven components can be driven down by judicious use of blends of makeup fibers and by use fire-retardant chemical additives, if needed.
3) Nonwoven barriers can, in many constructions, satisfy both comfort (padding)and fire-resistance requirements.
4) In many cases, manufacturers of finished furnishings products may chose "off-the-shelf" nonwoven barrier materials, which can simply be switched out without the added cost and labor of redesigning the product or making major changes in materials used.
5) Use of fire-resistant barriers in general and nonwoven barriers in particular, offers fire protection for filling components in products and minimizes the need to impart fire-retardant chemicals in materials such as polyurethane foam. Major concerns exist at present regarding the safety of foam fire retardant chemicals, some of which have already been banned.
6) A simple, screening test currently exists for fire-blocking barriers, including nonwovens, to establish their efficacy for use in furnishings products amenable to specific flammability standards.

In summary, nonwoven battings and pads used as fire-blocking barriers, in addition to their continued traditional uses, creates added value for furnishingsproducts, by meeting consumer demands for aesthetic, comfort and durabilityand improving home and public occupancy fire safety.
John McCormack worked for over 30 years with the State of California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, enforcing existing flammability standards for upholstered furniture and bedding, acting as a liaison with industry, conducting research and development and revision of standards and co-authoring several new standards, including California Technical Bulletins 121, 129, 133 and 603 (now C.P.S.C. standard 16 CFR 1633). For more on nonwovens role in the home furnishings market, please see our March 2011 issue.
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