With more than 1,500 deaths a year attributed to upholstered furniture fires, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the furniture industry and a major chemical manufacturer are grappling with the need to reduce the flammability of modern upholstered furniture.

Diminishing the fire hazard of upholstered furniture, particularly its polyurethane foam cushioning, is considered a major factor in cutting residential fire deaths. Often such fatalities result from carbon monoxide poisoning from a smouldering or burning piece of furniture. But how best to attack the problem is a technically complex and controversial regulartory issue in which saving lives is being balanced against questions of cost, toxicity and proven effectivness.

Polyurethane foam cushioning is used in vast majority of the upholstered pieces manufactured in the United States over the past 15 years.

"There is no question that the involvement of home furnishings and . . . foams are a very important factor in residential fire damage," said Dr. Frederic B. Clarke, director of the National Bureau of Standards' Center for Fire Research.

Furniture with substantial amounts of cushioning such as polyurethane or latex foam is more likely to burn with an open flame than smoulder, according to a recent center report on furniture fires. Flaming fires get dangerous faster, it pointed out.

Eighty percent of all fire deaths occur at home, and the fire research center estimates that upholstered furniture and mattresses play a key role in about two-thirds of those fatalities. Mattresses, however, have been required by federal standards since 1973 to resist ignition by a lit cigarette.Upholstered sofas and chairs, however, are under no federal fire resistance requirements, and only California has imposed a state standard.

Over 40,000 fires are started every year in upholstered furniture. In 1977-1978, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, the result was 1,530 killed, 7,200 injured and $1.1 billion in losses.

The overall fire hazard of any piece of furniture depends on the interaction of its construction materials, what experts call the synergistic effect.

"Nobody is smart enough to be able to predict the flammability behavior of a complicated product like a piece of furniture based on [separate] component tests," said James S. Hoebel, manager of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's fire and thermal burn hazards program.

CPCS tests typically show that when lit cigarettes are placed on upholstered furniture, pieces will smoulder for over an hour before bursting into flame, possibly igniting other furnishings. Flashover or full-room involvement can occur with "startling rapidily -- in as little as two or three minutes," the National Bureau of Standards report said.

In other instances, CPSC and fire center experts agree, upholstered furniture will continue to smoulder until it has been consumed entirely. Both scenarios can result in the buildup of lethal fumes, particularly carbon monoxide.

To reduce the furniture fire potential, the Connecticut-based Olin Corp., maker of a fire retardant chemical, has petitioned the CPSC to create a flammability standard for the polyurethane foam components of upholstered furniture. Olin wants a standard based on two flammability criteria: resistance to lit cigarettes and to small, open flames such as matches or candles. The Olin petition is backed by the Californian Bureau of Home Furnishings, which administers the regulations upon which the request is modeled, the Los Angeles fire department, the National Consumers League and several trade groups.

Fire experts agree that potential for ignition from cigarettes or from small flames are two distinct problems, with cigarettes posing the far greater hazard. U.S. Fire Administration data show that 84 percent of the 1977-78 death toll from upholstery fires started by cigarettes; 9 percent were linked to fires started by open flames. Olin cited figures that 7,900 upholstered furniture fires a year are caused by small flames, killing about 200.

Olin estimates that if polyurethane foam were required to pass a test demonstrating resistance to a small open flame, about 1,500 lives and 5,000 injuries could be saved over the 14-year life expectancy of modern furniture. Olin also points to California fire statistics which show that upholstery fires have fallen although population and polyurethane foam usage are up. The flammability regulations, effective since 1975, "have resulted in the sale of furniture in the state of California which is considerably safer than that available elsewhere in the United States," said Gordon H. Damant, chief of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings.

As for a national standard, "there is no question that such a standard would help," said fire research center director Clarke. "But there's always a search for panaceas in this business . . . It can't hurt. It's bound to help. The question is how much."

The Upholstered Furniture Action Council, an umbrella organization for furniture manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, is resisting a mandatory standard. Instead, it has offered the safety commission its year-old voluntary program, which it says covers 82 percent of the sales volume of upholstered furniture. Under the furniture council program, participating manufacturers put a gold tag on their products certifying that their materials are designed to resist burning cigarettes. The program disregards ignition by a small open flame, because of what it considers the relatively minor nature of the problem.

The cost to the counselor of a national foam standard is in dispute.The furniture council calculates that its voluntary program, concentrating only on smoulder resistance, costs the consumer about $30 million a year. A requirement to meet an open flame test would require fire retardant foam at an additional cost to the consumer of $50 million to $100 million annually. The retail price of furniture would increase 6 percent, or $30 on a $500 sofa, according to council. The product safety commission and Olin say the additional retail cost would be about 2 percent, or $10 on a $500 sofa. The CPSC says total consumer costs would be $90 to $135 million annually, a figure Olin accepts.

The commission must now evaluate the effectiveness of the manufacturers' program and the merit of the Olin petition. Decisions on both are expected by early summer, the commission staff says. Olin most recently put its case to the commission in January to rebut a staff recommendation that the petition be denied.

The CPSC's technical staff said Olin overestimated the benefits of an open flame cirteria. And, like the manufacturers' group, the staff questioned the relative importance of an open flame test. "The staff believes that the primary problem is smouldering. With our limited resources, we feel we need to address teh larger problem before we are diverted by going after a relatively smaller problem," said Hoebel said.

To evaluate the manufacturers' program, the commission tested 78 chairs, purchased around the country, by placing as many as 21 lit cigarettes on a single chair, Hoebel said. Sixty-one chairs ignited, he said, leading the CPSC staff to estimate that more than half of the furniture in the upholstered furniture council's program could be expected to ignite from a lit cigarette. The test results are better than they used to be, he said, but whether they will satisfy the commission is unknown.

Even without passage of the Olin petition, the National Bureau of Standards has calculated that improved resistance to cigarette ignition resulting from the mattress standard and the manufacturers' program could ultimately reduce residential fire deaths by 40 percent as older mattresses and furniture are replace. Use of an open flame criterion could eventually eliminate an additional 7 percent of residential fire deaths, the NBS center said.

Requiring polyurethane upholstery foam to pass the open flame test would, in effect, necessitate the use of a chemical fire retardant in its manufacture. Olin and five other firms make such a chemical.

"If you want my candid opinion, they're trying to use the government to impose a standard so they can sell a product no one wants," said furniture action council chairman William S. Richman, president of the Futorian Corp., the largest U.S. manufacturer of upholstered furniture.

An Olin spokesman denied the charge, saying it seeks a product performance standard that does not specify use of a particular product. Further, he said, there is existing demanding for fire-retardant foam in a number of markets, including for furniture sold in California. Olin had no estimate of how its profits or sales would be affected by the acceptance of its petition.

The potential danger of chemically treated fire retardant foam is in dispute. "Toxicity is an issue that we must be concerned with in this kind of situation," said Hoebel. "We don't want to create a different hazard."

The CPSC staff says that there is disagreement among experts whether the fumes released by burning fire retardant foam are any more toxic than those of ordinary foam. The CPSC staff contends that the Olin petition "did not demonstrate conclusively that fire retardant foam is no more toxic than non-fire-retardant foam." Olin maintains that chemical fire retardants do not make buring polyurethane foam andy more lethal.

The furniture action council contends that some chemical fire retardants could hinder a foam's smoulder resistance or make it even more prone to smouldering, which Olin also disputes.Damant said that California tests show that when smouldering is unavoidable, fire retardant foam either slows the rate of smouldering or prevents the item from bursting into flame.

The product safety commissions' ultimate decision, Hoebel said, will hinge on a judgment whether the standard's passage would save lives and justify its costs. An uncertain factor is the regulatory atmosphere under a new administration pledged to cut government involvement in business. Some form of flammability standard for upholstered furniture has been under discussion by federal regulatory agencies since the early 1970s.

"I just don't believe this administration can back off safety regulations and get away with it," said David Swankin, counsel to the National Olin petition. "The fact that [citizens] want govenment off their backs does not mean they want to die or that they want unsafe things."

Olin, for its part, has said it would be satisfied with a voluntary program of it incorporated a small open-flame resistance criterion for polyurethane foam. The furniture action council, which initiated its voluntary effort after the commission agreeed to postpone work on a mandatory standard for a year, so far has resisted the open flame aspect. "The benefit to the consumer is very, very insignificant, the cost very, very high. It does nothing to address the cigarette problem which is the big one, and in some cases, makes it worse," Richman said.

But, says Olin attorney Michael Lemov, a failure by the product safety commission to act "will unreasonably expost the consumer to injury and death from both small open flame and smouldering ignition.