How Flammable is the Mattress You Sleep On?

On January 29,2009, a fire caused by a 4-year-old boy playing with a lighter left a family of five without a home, Tampa Fire Rescue officials say fire crews arrived at 3 p.m. and saw smoke and flames coming from a single story duplex. Investigators say that homeowner Annie Harley saw her 4-year-old grandson come out of a bedroom and noticed something was wrong. Harley went in the room and saw the mattress on fire. Luckily, Harley got the boy, along with her other grandchildren - ages 4, 1 and 6 months - safely out of the burning duplex. Damage to Harley's duplex is about $100,000. Firefighters had the flames under control in 15 minutes and no injuries were reported. The 4-year-old boy was referred to the juvenile fire-setters program, which teaches families and children about fire prevention and safety. The American Red Cross is helping Harley and her grandchildren with clothing and temporary shelter. Tragic as the story is, the extreme flammability of the mattress may have taken lives, had the fire occurred at night, when escape would have been complicated by darkness, smoke and toxic combustion products.

Did you know that most prisoners sleep on safer mattresses than you do? Years ago, the government studied the high incidents of intentionally set mattress fires in the prison system. In the late 1970's Federal judges ordered removal of these foam filled mattresses due to their flammability. Nelson v Collins, 455 F. Supp. 727 (Md. 1978); Gates v Collier 454 F. Supp. 567 (N. D. Miss. 1978). This spawned a market for less flammable mattresses, which have been utilized primarily in prisons, nursing homes, and hospitals, and some hotels. Until July 2007, no standard existed which set limits on the rate of speed of which mattresses could burn, but there was a Federal cigarette ignition resistance requirement. DOC FF 4-72 [Federal Register, Vol. 35, No. 175 (Sept. 1971), pp. 18095-18098]. A sheet of newspaper can pass this "smoldering cigarette" standard. A mattress prototype fails the test if a "char" extends more than 2" from the cigarette or if the mattress ignites.

According to the CPSC, residential mattress fires are second only to upholstered furniture fires in causing fatalities in the home. Between 1983 and 1987, mattresses were involved in 42,500 home fires which killed 732 people and injured 2950. A. Miller NFPA Journal Oct, 1991. Ignition causes during the period were most often discarded smoking materials and child-play fires.

What makes mattresses extremely flammable? Polyurethane foam for one. And a lot of it. Most contain this petroleum based material known by some fire experts as "solid gasoline". This is the same fiercely burning foam product that makes upholstered furniture involved in more residential fire deaths annually than any other product under the jurisdiction of the CPSC. Polyurethane foam has some chemicals which share the same combustion rating as kerosene and gasoline. Mattresses are large and loaded heavily with combustibles, making for a large fuel source if ignited, which can generate sufficient heat energy within several minutes to bring a standard size room to flash over conditions.

Here is a slide series from full-scale test burns conducted by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings in 1991

test burns on home furnishings

In 1988, the British government banned the use of non-flame retardant polyurethane foam in mattresses. The standard, DS 6807 (1986), was utilized in Furniture and Furnishings Regulations (1988 SI No. 1324). It is said that the approximate 5% increase in cost provides substantially more safety and no loss in comfort. A UK government study in 2001 by the DTI concluded that during the 10 year period from the Act's passage in 1988, a significant number of lives were saved by the stringent standards. See www.cefic-efra.com.

On February 16, 2006, the Consumer Products Safety Commission voted in favor of a mattress flammability standard relating to open flame ignitions of mattresses, which applies to all mattresses manufactured on or after July, 2007. The standard is a performance base standard in which the mattress is exposed to two gas burners emitting the amount of flaming heat represented by typical bedclothes or bed coverings. In order to pass the test, the mattress must not have a peak heat release rate greater than 200 kilowatts of heat energy during the first 30 minutes of the test and cannot develop more than more than 15 Mega - Joules in total heat released during the first 10 minutes of the test. This is essentially the same standard adopted by the State of California in 2005 for all mattresses sold in the state after the effective date. The performance standard is designed to make mattresses burn more slowly and less intensely, to allow greater escape time. See the full text of the rule here: 16 CFR 1633 Final Rule: Standard for the Flammability (Open Flame) of Mattress Sets CPSC Mattress Rule July 2007. Here is an illustration of the performance difference the standard makes.

Even with the new standard in place, there are 100's of thousands of highly flammable mattresses in use today, and will be for some time, as the useful life is, on average, between 15 and 20 years.

Product liability theories dominate injury and death claims where mattresses are ignited early in residential fires, sounding in negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. Smoking and alcohol use can pose significant obstacles for the plaintiff, as many such fires involve the use of these in the ignition scenario. Also, bedding materials such as pillows, bedspreads, etc., are fairly flammable as well, and can also pose additional contributions to a mattress fire. The State of California began rulemaking proceedings relating to the flammability of bedclothes, proposed standard TB 604, which as of Nov. 2008, had not been finalized . Fires involving baby crib mattresses, and even children's play pens, using polyurethane foam as padding materials are also sources for claims for compensation.

Contact Robin P. Foster, Foster Law Firm, L.L.C. with any questions, fact scenarios, referrals, or associations related to mattress fires or flammability in general.