Fire-Resistant Mattresses Ignite Fear of Chemicals

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

This is no sleeper issue.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission's January proposal to require mattress manufacturers to make their products resistant to open-flame fires has been in the making since the commission was created more than 30 years ago. And some wonder whether it was worth the wait.

The issue is an important one because almost everyone sleeps on a mattress. And it's big business, with about 25 million new mattresses sold annually, most made by U.S. companies. There were about 19,400 residential fires annually between 1995 and 1999 traced to mattresses and bedding. They caused 440 deaths and 2,230 injuries, as well as $274 million in property damage each year.

The only test mattress makers must pass aims to limit damage from smoldering cigarettes. The more dangerous, open-flame fires that can result in "flash-overs" that ignite in a matter of minutes and can destroy a house have never been regulated. They usually start when children play with matches or lighters or when candles are lit in the bedroom.

The proposal calls for industry to manufacture models that would pass a 30-minute burn test during which heat from the fire would be low enough for a long enough time that other objects wouldn't catch fire and occupants would have time to escape. Manufacturers would be able to choose from a variety of substances, including chemicals, to meet the fire-resistant standard.

Currently, only California has a standard to make residential mattresses resistant to open flames. It and more than a dozen other states have passed laws banning the use of certain fire-retardant chemicals.

"The rule would create one national flammability standard. We hope to see an 80 percent reduction in deaths," said Harold D. Stratton Jr., chairman of the CPSC. The commission did not act on an open-flame standard until 1998.

The CPSC calculated that the new rule would cost industry up to $1.11 billion for mattresses produced in the first year, but the benefits would be up to $1.56 billion in lives saved and injuries averted. Average mattress prices would increase anywhere from $22.91 to $79.69 per mattress set, according to CPSC calculations. One major manufacturer, Serta International , has made products that already meet the standard without having raised prices.

Despite the promise of fewer deaths and injuries, scores of people around the country filed comments opposing the proposal because it would allow the use of chemicals such as boron, antimony and chlorine in the flame retardants.

The comment period closed in March, and it became apparent that many of the more than 500 responses were generated through PeopleforCleanBeds.org, a Web site started by a maker of waterbeds and foam mattresses. Mark Strobel , president of Strobel Supple-pedic in Jeffersonville, Ind., said he is fearful that the CPSC will allow the use of dangerous chemicals that have not been fully tested for current use or long-term exposure to humans.

"Why would we want to sleep in known, acutely toxic poisons to avoid the one in 1 million risk of dying in a mattress fire?" said Strobel. "We at least need thorough testing, including exposure data and independent risk assessments, for potential health effects of these chemicals in mattresses before this law is passed."

Strobel said that the domestic mattress industry is worried about imports and that the standard is one way to discourage foreign manufacturers who might find it tough to pass the test.

John " Gib " Mullan , CPSC director of compliance, said the agency found there would be no significant impact on health from the variety of chemicals that might be used. The agency is doing more testing on exposure now, but he expects the result to be the same.

He said if the commission found a substance to be dangerous, it could ban or limit its use. The agency also is considering regulating bedclothes -- sheets, comforters, pillows -- that play a role in fires.

The mattress industry has worked closely with the commission on the proposal. Ryan Trainer , executive vice president of the International Sleep Products Association in Alexandria, said when manufacturers realized several years ago that the CPSC was moving toward a rulemaking, "we wanted to make sure that what came out this was practical."

Cost was an issue, he said, because many of the fires occur among lower income groups who would not buy expensive mattresses. The industry group also wanted a 30-minute test, though the National Association of State Fire Marshals said a 60-minute test would be more realistic because it takes longer to respond to fires in rural areas.

"We worked with the CPSC to have a standard that we are happy with and they are happy with," Trainer said. The CPSC said there are 537 domestic mattress makers, but four companies account for 60 percent of the market.

Serta, the second-largest U.S. manufacturer, has been using a fire-blocking system on all its products since January that uses a blend of natural and synthetic fibers as well as chemicals. Al Klancnik , Serta group vice president, vouched for the safety of the chemicals. He said boric acid occurs in nature and is used in laundry detergents and vitamins.

"There is an infinitesimal level of boric acid available on the surface of mattresses," he said, noting that a mattress pad and sheet block exposure to it.

Whitney Davis , an attorney who used to sue manufacturers over injuries to children from mattress fires, petitioned the CPSC for the rule and pushed for the California standard. He said he would like the final rule to require labels disclosing the content of the fire resistant material because he thinks some manufacturers, and importers, may use unsafe chemical treatments.

Davis said the Children's Coalition for Fire-Safe Mattresses , which he founded, is awarding seals of commendation to manufacturers who use internal barriers and not surface chemical treatments.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company