Are kerosene heaters safe?

The industry marketing them says yes; the firefighters' association and the nation's leading consumer testing organization say no. The disagreement between the two sides intensified when Consumer Reports Magazine published in its October issue the results of its kerosene heater tests and recommended against purchasing one, because the heater's "open flame poses an obvious hazard of fire" and because the gases given off "pose a less obvious -- but no less serious -- problem."

Kero-Sun Inc., the largest kerosene heater marketer, brought a $51 million libel suit against Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, charging that its tests were faulty. At the same time, the kerosene heater industry mounted an advertising campaign asserting that the heaters are safe when used properly. And just last week, the National Kerosene Heaters Association, the industry trade group, announced the results of preliminary tests made by its consultants, who contend that kerosene heater emissions -- such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide -- don't constitute a significant health hazard.

"Data I have seen indicate that concentrations of these gases produced by kerosene heaters are unlikely to cause a problem for people, but more research is needed," said Professor Jack Peterson, an industrial hygienist at the University of Illinois. He also said that the conditions under which Consumers Union tested for emissions were not as realistic as conditions recommended by another kerosene heater industry consultant, Dr. Fredrick Shair, a chemical engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology.

Consumers Union, meantime, is standing by its tests.

"We believe we are right . . . that there are risks," said David Pittle, the director of product testing for Consumers Union.

As the controversy escalated, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission -- which has twice refused to ban the kerosene heater because of the absence of evidence proving there is a significant hazard -- reopened the case and ordered more testing of the fire and emissions hazards. But the agency's preliminary test results won't be in until late January or early February -- halfway through Washington's winter. And final results won't be in until June.

The impasse comes at a time when consumers are searching for new ways to keep their homes comfortably warm and to keep their fuel costs to a minimum. The new portable unvented kerosene heaters, which sell for $100 to $300, seemed to be the solution for many, at least until questions were raised about their safety, which have been used successfully in Japan for years but only appeared on the U.S. market within the last decade.

Bill Litwin, a former pilot for the Navy and Pan American World Airlines, is credited with the idea of bringing the Japanese kerosene heater to the United States and promoting its use in homes and businesses. Litwin founded Kero-Sun Inc. in the early 1970s and began importing kerosene heaters made in Japan. This year the company expects to take in more than $100 million.

Sales were slow at first -- only 3,400 kerosene heaters were sold in the United States in 1974 -- but that changed quickly as energy prices for American consumers shot upward and serious promotions of the kerosene heaters got underway. By 1981, sales had increased to 3 million units. And by the end of this year, the industry expects to have sold 5 million more kerosene heaters. Kero-Sun Inc., with about 35 percent of the market, probably will sell 1.8 million of those units.

These new heaters, most of which are made in Japan or in other Asian countries, are generally described as having new generation technology that makes them safer, more dependable and more efficient than the crude kerosene cooking and heating stoves marketed in the United States during the 1950s and earlier. Those earlier models were banned in many areas because of fires caused by heaters tipping over, fires from fuel storage and handling, asphyxiation and other problems.

Unvented kerosene heaters were banned in the District of Columbia in 1952, for example, and that ban is still in effect.

The state of Virginia has never had a ban against heaters, although fire officials in some jurisdictions have approached businesses using kerosene heaters and ordered them to stop the practice.

Maryland's 20-year ban against kerosene heaters was changed in 1981 to allow certain models in one- and two-family homes. The change was approved by the Maryland Fire Prevention Commission after more than a year of struggle between industry representatives and fire safety leaders.

The battle in Maryland was part of the kerosene heater industry's effort to eliminate all the bans. So far, they have succeeded in getting the laws and regulations changed in most jurisdictions across the country -- except for a few holdouts like the District.

Fire officials -- as well as the Consumer Reports -- cite three areas of concern about the kerosene heater:

Fire risks from having a combustible liquid brought into the home. If the fuel leaks onto carpeting, for example, the flame from the heater could ignite the carpeting.

Pollutants released into the air inside the home by the burning of kerosene. These pollutants include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In its research, Consumers Union concluded that the level of emissions of these pollutants was sufficient to pose a significant health hazard. The industry contends that the level of emissions doesn't pose a significant hazard but that more research should be done.

Use of the wrong fuel. Kerosene 1K, which is low in sulfur, is the product that consumers are supposed to use in the kerosene heaters. But when that isn't readily available, some consumers turn to Kerosene 2K, which can dramatically increase sulfur-dioxide emissions and, fire officials say, can gum up the wick in the heater itself.

In the past, when the CPSC considered the question of kerosene heater safety, the primary concern was on the fire risk -- which statistically hasn't appeared to be a problem. One reason is that there were so few heaters in use that valid statistical conclusions couldn't be drawn. The most recent fire data from the U.S. Fire Administration, for example, was for 1980 and indicated that about 600 fires and 20 deaths were attributed to portable liquid fueled heaters. (It wasn't clear from the statistics if those heaters were the old-fashioned kind or the new generation Japanese models.) That was significantly less than corresponding data for wood and coal burning heating equipment, which were responsible for 112,000 fires and 350 deaths in the same year.

Tests now being made by the commission will focus on both the fire and burn risk posed by the heaters used in homes and on the level of pollutants that they may emit.

David Pittle, who served on the CPSC for 10 years before his term ended this fall, now is in charge of testing for Consumers Union. As a veteran of the kerosene heater controversy, he says that the issue has to do with degree of risk.

"What concerns me is that it is being made to appear as a situation in which the heater should be declared absolutely safe or unsafe.

"No one can say with a straight face that the heaters have zero risk; that is misleading. Even the labels on the heaters say that the window should be kept ajar. That is a wise thing for people to do, but they won't do it. To open the window and let in cold air when you are heating a house is counterproductive.

"We Consumers Union think that the risk is sufficient to tell our readers that there is a better alternative -- the electric heater. Why risk adding to the level of indoor pollutants when you don't have to?

"We the magazine said that as a strong meow -- not as a cry for a government ban. It was a suggestion that the commission look at the pollutant risk."