Polyurethane materials are organic and—like other organic materials such as wood, paper, cotton, wool, and many others—can ignite and burn if exposed to a sufficient heat source. Organic foam insulation, regardless of whether the foam contains fire retardants, should be considered combustible and handled accordingly. Precautions should be taken to minimize any potential for fire through accidental ignition in handling, storage and use. How polyurethane or polyisocyanurate (polyiso) foams are used ultimately helps determine their fire safety. When used in furniture and bedding, flexible polyurethane foams (FPFs) are generally matched with fabric coverings and liners that may influence the combustibility of the finished article.
In the building and construction industry, polyurethane and polyiso foams are regulated through fire codes, the model building codes and state and local governments. Model and local building codes are used throughout the United States to provide guidance and requirements for the safe use of materials and systems used in buildings. They are considered “living documents” that are updated and changed on a regular basis. Building codes help safeguard life and protect the public welfare by regulating design, construction practices, construction material quality (including fire performance), location, occupancy, and maintenance of buildings and structures. When regulating materials, many of the model building codes refer to consensus standards for products or tests developed by standard-setting organizations such as ASTM International and the National Fire Protection Association. Some building codes and insurance rating organizations also rely on test information from testing laboratories such as Factory Mutual Global and Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.
Adopting National Furnishings Flammability Standards
CPI favors the adoption of a national standard by a government authority that effectively promotes fire safety and saving lives. An effective standard should be technically sound and appropriate for product performance. The national standard should address the following concepts regarding testing and product labeling:
Test selection and design should address the actual hazard. The final test should be a performance-based test representative of upholstered furniture and/or mattress constructions in residential use.
All residential upholstered furniture must meet the same or equivalent test requirements regardless of the materials used in construction.
- All residential mattresses must meet the same test requirements regardless of the materials used in construction.
- The test criteria and procedures should be practical.
- Appropriate labeling provisions should be included.
To learn more about furnishings flammability and FPF, visit the Polyurethane Foam Association’s Website.
Improving and Promoting Fire Safety
To address fire safety concerns, including those associated with upholstered furniture, mattresses, building and construction, in particular, CPI supports education on:
- Fire safety;
- The use of fire and smoke detectors and fire suppressant systems; and
- Proper handling of potential ignition sources
Polyurethanes are essential to many products and have been long used in the upholstered furniture and building and construction market sectors. Whether using fireproofing materials to reduce the flame spread in bedding and mattresses, or thermal insulation to reduce the flow of heat through the thickness of a material, polyurethanes will continue to serve these industries well into the future, and CPI members support fire safety regulations that help reduce the incidences of fire-related injuries and deaths.
As with many common household goods, items containing polyurethane may become involved in a fire. All combustible materials produce toxic smoke when burned. The toxicity of smoke can be relevant as it is one of many factors affecting the ability of people to escape from a fire.
There are misconceptions that smoke from a fire that involves polyurethane products poses a significantly greater health risk than from other synthetic or natural materials because hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is present in the smoke. HCN is produced whenever nitrogen containing materials are burned, including polyurethanes and other common materials such as sheep’s wool. However, in terms of hazard, carbon monoxide (CO) is typically by far the most abundant toxicant in fires under almost all combustion conditions.