Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on September 3, 2013.

Furniture Flammability and Home Fire Losses

IF YOU'RE SETTLING INTO YOUR FAVORITE OVER-STUFF COUCH or easy chair to read this story, you should know that what you’re sitting on has been a hot topic for decades.

Couches, chairs, and other pieces of furniture, many of them generously stuffed with combustible materials, play a significant role in residential fire spread, property damage, deaths, and injuries. According to NFPA statistics, upholstered furniture, as either the first item ignited or the principal item contributing to the fire spread, played a part in nearly a quarter of all deaths in home structure fires in recent years.

Furniture flammability — the likelihood of a piece of furniture igniting when exposed to fire — also contributes to the growing concern that firefighters are battling fires that are bigger and faster than ever before. The polyurethane foam that fills much of today’s upholstered furniture burns rapidly and can lead to faster flashover for fires in homes. Home fire behavior has changed so dramatically in the past few decades that the New York City Fire Department recently began investigating new firefighting tactics addressing furniture threats, according to an article published last year in The New York Times.

All of this is taking place in the absence of a national regulation requiring flammability testing for upholstered furniture. Since the 1970s, California has required flammability testing of all upholstered furniture sold in the state, and these requirements are seen as the nation’s de facto standard. But experts say it’s impossible to know how many manufacturers nationwide are complying with the California requirements, and that a national regulation would ensure more widespread testing while standardizing testing procedures.

California is also poised to drop a key open-flame testing provision from the new edition of its regulation, a move that has prompted other organizations to consider addressing the furniture flammability problem — including the need for a national standard. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which has effectively regulated flammability tests for mattresses, recently sought input for the development of a furniture flammability standard. NFPA has also made the issue a priority. In response to the activity in California and at the CPSC, NFPA’s Board of Directors last year asked the association to define and describe the furniture flammability problem; the resulting white paper, “Upholstered Furniture Flammability,” was completed in February. In addition, NFPA’s Standards Council is seeking public comment for a possible test method evaluating fire resistance of upholstered furniture subjected to a flaming ignition source.

Furniture Flammability by the Numbers

According to a recent NFPA analysis, in recent years fires involving upholstered furniture have annually accounted for…

  • The largest share of fire deaths of any first item ignited in U.S. homes
  • 8,900 home structure fires
  • 480 deaths — nearly 20 percent of all home fire deaths — 840 injuries, and $427 million in property damage when upholstered furniture was the first item ignited
  • 610 deaths — nearly a quarter of all home fire deaths — 1,120 injuries, and $566 million in property damage when upholstered furniture was the principal item contributing to fire spread
  • 1,900 fires, 270 civilian deaths, 320 civilian injuries, and $97 million in property damage when the ignition source was a lighted tobacco product
  • 2,200 fires, 130 civilian deaths, 280 civilian injuries, and $138 million in property damage when the ignition source was an open flame from another fire
  • 1,500 fires, 70 civilian deaths, 140 civilian injuries, and $81 million in property damage when the ignition source was operating equipment, such as space heaters
  • 1,400 fires, 60 civilian deaths, 220 civilian injuries, and $69 million in property damage when the ignition source was a small open flame, such as a candle or a match
  • 1,300 fires, 60 civilian deaths, 130 civilian injuries, and $150 million in property damage when the ignition source was ember, ash, or other unclassified hot or smoldering object
  • 600 fires, 20 civilian deaths, 30 civilian injuries, and $31 million in property damage when the ignition source was unclassified, other, or multiple heat source

Source: NFPA’s “Upholstered Furniture Flammability.” For excerpts of the report visit

“This is an issue whose time has come,” says Philip Stittleburg, chair of NFPA’s Board of Directors. “We’ve dealt with other aspects of home fires and fire deaths, from home fire sprinklers to the use of smoke alarms, and it’s time to take another look at furniture. It’s a problem we’ve been working on for many years, and we need to figure out our next logical step.”

TB 117 and California’s open-flame testing debate
In 1975, after reviewing the state’s fire data, California legislators decided to regulate testing of upholstered furniture sold in the state and issued Technical Bulletin (TB) 117, Requirements, Test Procedure and Apparatus for Testing the Flame Retardance of Resilient Filling Materials Used in Upholstered Furniture, also known as TB 117. Nearly 40 years later, California remains the only state with a furniture flammability test standard on the books.

Reluctant to miss out on the state’s massive market potential, many manufacturers around the country have adhered to the California requirements. “Some of the larger manufacturers don’t necessarily know where their products will be shipped and sold,” so they comply with the California regulation, says Tonya Blood, chief of California’s Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation, which oversees TB 117. “They mass produce, and it makes it more efficient for them to produce one type of furniture.”

But the number of furniture manufacturers and material suppliers in other states adhering to the California standard is hard to pin down; industry representatives believe most manufacturers are complying, while some on the testing side are more skeptical. “Nobody can tell you,” says Dick Gann, scientist emeritus at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who has been conducting research on furniture flammability and other fire issues for nearly as long as TB 117 has existed. “I can’t even estimate whether it’s 10 percent or 90 percent of furniture sold in the other 49 states that are meeting these standards. There’s no way to track it.”

TB 117’s tests have evolved to include testing on covering fabrics and furniture mock-ups. (By comparison, the United Kingdom has its own set of smoldering and low-flame test requirements built around British Standard 5852, Methods of Test for Assessment of the Ignitability of Upholstered Seating by Smouldering and Flaming Ignition Sources. Originally issued in 1980, the standard tests both mock-ups and furniture components, and has remained fairly consistent since its 1988 edition.) The California standard includes testing of both smoldering ignitions, such as cigarette fires, and open-flame ignitions ranging from small sources, such a match or candle, to larger sources. The smoldering test evaluates the cigarette-ignition resistance of upholstery cover fabrics, barrier materials, and filling materials, with each component mounted to a mock-up exposed to a lighted cigarette ignition.

Last year, however, California initiated efforts to revise TB 117—the first revision since minor changes were made to the standard’s 2000 edition — and remove the small open-flame test. The test required polyurethane foam, commonly used as furniture padding, to withstand an exposure to a small open flame for 12 seconds. One way — and the most affordable way — the highly combustible foam could pass such a test was to treat it with fire retardants. Concerned by the possible toxicity of some of these chemicals, consumer advocacy groups and state lawmakers, with the backing of Gov. Jerry Brown, pushed to have the open-flame test removed from TB 117. The test only encouraged the use of potentially toxic fire retardants, they argued, which posed a far more serious threat than fire. A proposed revision of TB 117 eliminates the small open-flame test, though Blood says the Bureau will continue to study open-flame ignition testing in the near future.

NFPA’s position on the revision is that testing that focuses primarily on smoldering cigarette ignitions misses important aspects of the role upholstered furniture can play in real-world fire scenarios. In a letter to Blood, submitted as part of the public comment period for TB 117, NFPA President James Shannon cited a recent NFPA analysis of national statistics on home fire losses related to upholstered furniture. The analysis, conducted by Dr. John Hall, division director of Fire Analysis & Research at NFPA, found that upholstered furniture is the leading item involved in home fire deaths, accounting for 24 percent of all home fire deaths in recent years. (This percentage includes both fires beginning with upholstered furniture and fires that grow and spread primarily through involvement of upholstered furniture.) Of those deaths, 45 percent can be attributed to cigarette ignition. An additional 21 percent can be attributed to flaming ignition from another burning item — typically a larger open flame source — and 10 percent can be attributed to small open flame ignition. Hall’s findings are included in the “Upholstered Furniture Flammability” white paper.

“Reflecting these statistics, NFPA feels strongly that a fully comprehensive fire safety regulation of upholstered furniture must address the full spectrum of major fire scenarios, including the open-flame scenarios,” Shannon wrote to Blood. “We further believe that test method results must reflect full-scale furniture behavior in these scenarios. Recent research by NIST and the [CPSC] suggests that a component smoldering test alone (such as the proposed TB 117) does not adequately reflect this behavior.”

Not by smoldering alone: Developing new open-flame tests
To address the likely removal of open-flame testing from TB 117, NFPA is in the initial stages of determining if it will develop its own open-flame test. During the August meeting of the NFPA Standards Council, a project request to develop such a test was submitted to the Council by NFPA’s Fire Tests Committee. The committee handles NFPA 260, Standard Methods of Tests and Classification System for Cigarette Ignition Resistance of Components of Upholstered Furniture, and NFPA 261, Standard Method of Test for Determining Resistance of Mock-Up Upholstered Furniture Material Assemblies to Ignition by Smoldering Cigarettes. Both tests, however, only address smoldering ignitions. (In 1990, ASTM International, formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials, issued two standards similar in scope to 260 and 261 that also addressed cigarette ignitions.) The request from the committee was acted on, and the Standards Council is now soliciting public comments about the need to address the open flame test scenario. 

“The committee understands that open-flame ignition is a major hazard for upholstered furniture fires,” says Tracy Vecchiarelli, NFPA staff liaison for NFPA 260 and 261. “The industry has a gap in it, and we’re trying to fix it.” The Standards Council will review all public comments on the proposed test method, and if it approves the new standard at its March 2014 meeting, the document could enter the public input period soon after.

Elsewhere, efforts are underway to develop alternative methods for making upholstered furniture more fire resistant. NIST and the Environmental Protection Agency are currently working to identify the next generation of environmentally responsible fire retardants. Other research suggests that open-flame ignition resistance can be provided using fire-barrier systems, a combination of furniture fabric layers and coatings that either slow fire growth or prevent ignition of filling materials. NIST is researching fire barrier systems and measurement methods to determine if these systems work, says Gann, and CPSC studies conducted with NIST have indicated “significant promise” for the barriers.  Blood says the Bureau will launch a two-year study on fire barriers which would start as soon as the 2013 edition of TB 117 is finalized. Work is also underway to develop a flexible polyurethane foam for upholstered furniture that’s less prone to smoldering and, if it burns, does so at a slower rate than current foams.

Meanwhile, other groups are pushing for voluntary compliance with flammability testing. The Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC), an industry trade association, has its own voluntary test methods guiding cigarette ignition of furniture components. According to the group, 73 manufacturers have taken the UFAC “pledge” to produce furniture adhering to its cigarette-ignition-resistance testing, which is similar in scope to NFPA 260.

All of these efforts seem to be having an impact on loss of life and property. Over the past three decades, according to NFPA’s white paper, there has been a downward trend in fires beginning with ignition of upholstered furniture and associated losses — but it’s uncertain how long that trend can continue. “It’s clear there have been substantial gains as a result of what’s been done,” says NIST’s Gann. “But the test methods have been out there longer than the furniture that’s in our homes. If those tests resulted in a 40 percent drop in fatalities from furniture fires, that’s where we’re going to stay, since furniture meeting those requirements isn’t going to be any better or worse.”

National regulation: 40 years in the making
CPSC has worked on a version of a federal flammability testing standard off and on for nearly four decades. As part of CPSC’s latest effort, NFPA submitted its opinions, which mirrored feedback submitted for the TB 117 revision, during a public comment period ending in July on the development of a cigarette-ignition-resistance test standard. CPSC staff is currently evaluating and testing proposed performance standard options.

Theories abound as to why national regulation on test furniture flammability isn’t already in place. Gann hypothesizes that it didn’t make sense to tackle a problem when the solutions — TB 117, as well as UFAC, ASTM, and NFPA standards — seemed to be in place. Industry resistance hasn’t really been a factor, says NFPA’s Hall, since furniture manufacturers had little reason to think a national standard would be that different from the California regulation, which many of them already followed. Also, data on furniture flammability was typically focused on the first item ignited, and only recently, says Gann, did research reveal that property damage, injuries, and deaths from upholstered furniture fires increase when furniture was factored in as the principal item contributing to fire spread, a point underscored in the recent NFPA analysis. In 1999, an updated version of the National Fire Incident Reporting System, which collects an array of U.S. fire department data, began gathering information on principal items ignited during fires, making it easier for researchers to quantify the problem.

Thoroughly researching test methods before making it the law may have also delayed implementation. “You have to do the homework to make sure you’ve picked the right small-scale test so you’re confident that you will get the prediction of a full-scale test,” says Gann. “Right now, regulators don’t have that assurance.” NIST is trying to obtain that assurance through the analysis of various configurations of furniture fabrics and padding, Gann says, with the goal of categorizing these arrangements into a handful of flammability testing procedures.

As research continues and regulators consider their next steps, NFPA aims to raise awareness on furniture fires that are responsible for an estimated 610 deaths annually, or nearly a quarter of all home fire fatalities. “I’m not too sure the furniture flammability problem is all that well known,” says NFPA’s Stittleburg. “I suppose if you put it into the overall context of things, 610 deaths may not seem all that significant if you think about the number of people dying in traffic accidents. However, 610 deaths is a big number to us, and we will try to raise awareness and find solutions to this problem.”

Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer for NFPA Journal.