Children's Coalition for Fire-Safe Mattresses

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The Problem with Conventional Mattresses

Facts About Children and Mattress Fires

The single greatest ignition factor in mattress and bedding fires is a child playing with matches or a lighter. Children under the age of five start one-third of all mattress fires. (NFIRS, 1996) Children under the age of fourteen caused two-thirds of the open flame mattress ignitions. (Wide Awake, NASFM/SPSC 1997).

The most likely child fire victim is a male under five years of age. He is Caucasian, and his parents have high-school degrees or less. The child dies in his dwelling (78%) from a fire that started in a sleeping room (64%), where no smoke detector was present (43%), and where they were playing with matches or a lighter (33%). The fire took place in January or February, on a Saturday, between 8:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. (Children and Fire, FEMA/USFA 1993)

On average, 28,000 mattress fires occur annually, killing 571 people, injuring 3,000, and causing $334 million in property damage. (The U.S. Home Product Report, 1998, NFPA) Most of the victims are children.

On average, 75% of all fire deaths are caused by smoke inhalation. (Burns, Toxic Gases, 1997, NFPA)

How Conventional Mattresses Are Built

Fabric coverings are placed around an innerspring unit. Felt batting and other fabric layers are then applied to the piece. Several pounds of polyurethane foam and other fabrics are then added in several layers. For plush or pillow top units, additional foam is added to the top layers. The unit is then covered with a decorative fabric known as "ticking".

Why Mattress Fires Constitute a Fire Hazard

The pounds of polyurethane foam in a conventional innerspring mattress are highly combustible. Foam is made by mixing several hazardous chemicals. Some of those chemicals share the same combustibility rating as kerosene and gasoline.

One hazardous foam ingredient is isocyanate, a cyanide derivative. Cyanide is a nerve agent that first disables, and then kills, the victim. An example of the deadly nature of this chemical is the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. The plant released isocyanate into the air, killing and injuring thousands of nearby villagers and livestock in mere hours.

The mattress ticking provides little resistance to open flame. When the foam under the ticking smolders or ignites, it emits volumes of smoke containing carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and cyanide gas. This smoke often disables the victims and prevents their escape. The tremendous fuel load in the foam also burns very rapidly, and can cause an explosive "flashover" in 3 to 5 minutes. By the time help arrives, it is too late for the disabled victims, who die more often from inhaling the smoke than from the flames themselves. Entire families can be killed from the smoke, even if the fire is contained in the bedroom.

Children are drawn to their beds. Many know that they are not allowed to play with matches. When they do decide to play with fire, they go to their bed to hide their transgression. Further, if they start a fire elsewhere in the room, they often retreat to the safety of their beds. After the fire is extinguished, many child fire victims are found in or near their beds.

 Burn Survivor Biographies

wpe2.jpg (24205 bytes)MITCHELL RITCHIE: AGE: 15 YEARS OLD


A malfunctioning vaporizer ignited Mitchell’s mattress, from which he received third-degree burns over 60% of his body. Mitchell sustained "fourth degree" burns to his jawbone and skull. He was hospitalized for the remainder of the year, and underwent dozens of grafting and cosmetic operations. Mitchell lost most of his skin above the waist, his left hand and left ear.



damon.bmp (99538 bytes)DAMON BIHL: AGE: 10 YEARS OLD

Damon awoke from a nap and found stick matches in his parents’ bathroom drawer. He took the matchbox to the bed, and began striking them. Hearing a scream, his mother rushed upstairs to find flames reaching from the mattress to the ceiling. Damon’s small hand then reached out from the flames. His mother rescued him, receiving second-degree burns herself. Damon received third degree burns to 50% of his body, and lost his left hand, left ear and most of his scalp.


Regulatory History

1970: Study by National Bureau of Standards (U.S. Commerce Department) finds that and unreasonable risk of fire and death is presented by mattresses, which can be easily ignited by open flame or smoldering cigarettes. Children under 5 years found to start many of the fires. NBS calls for a national flammability standard.

U.S. Commerce Department issues "Mattresses: Notice of Finding that Flammability Standards or other Regulation May be Needed and Institution of Proceedings". (Federal Register, Vol. 35, No. 112, (June, 1970) pp. 8944-8955.

1971: U.S. Commerce Department issues "Mattresses: Notice of Proposed Flammability Standard. (Federal Register, Vol. 35, No. 175 (Sept. 1971) pp. 18095-18098. This is known as DOC FF 4-72, which essentially became the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s "smoldering cigarette" standard. A sheet of newspaper can pass this test. A mattress prototype fails the test if a "char" extends more than 2 inches from the cigarette, or if the mattress ignites. All California mattresses would later be required to bear a small label stating:


Many labeling requirements in others states offer far less information.

The mattress industry, represented by the National Association of Bedding Manufacturers (now the International Sleep Products Association) criticizes the standard, maintaining among other complaints, that labeling would be too burdensome, that the level of smoldering performance was not technologically practicable, and testing prototypes would be too expensive.

The CPSC establishes that the technology is available and affordable. The industry is criticized for using "fugitive" treatments, which provide a modicum of ignition resistance for only a few months – enough time to pass the smoldering test.

1973: Some small mattress manufacturers break ranks, and call for an open flame standard in addition to the cigarette standard. They believe it would cost a few cents to flame-retard a mattress. CPSC does not adopt an open flame standard.

1980s: Mattress makers begin selling open-flame resistant mattresses for use in hotels, prisons, and other institutions. Some federal and state governmental agencies require flame-retardant mattresses. Such mattresses are not made available to the public. CPSC does not adopt an open flame standard.

1988: British Government bans the use of non-flame-retardant polyurethane foam in mattresses. (Furniture and Furnishings Regulations 1988 SI No. 1324) The British Standards Institution has already devised open flame tests BS5852 (chairs, 1982) and BS6807 (mattresses, 1986). British foam and mattress industries quickly provide affordable fire-safe cushioning for mattresses.

1989: U.S. Mattress industry conducts mattress burn study where "state-of-the-art" flame-retarded mattresses outperform conventional foam units. Fire-safe designs still not sold to the general public. British Standard BS7177 (open flame standard for mattresses, 1989) is devised. CPSC does not adopt an open flame standard.

1993: Foam companies begin issuing warnings to mattress makers regarding the potentially fatal hazard:


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This warning is not "passed on to the ultimate users". Some members of the mattress industry begin to place three inch "hang tags", devised by the industry’s "Sleep Products Safety Council (SPSC), on mattresses. The tags do not mention a fatal hazard. Further, consumers are denied the ability to be informed about the hazard at the retail level, as many mattress retailers routinely remove the tags for "cosmetic purposes" in the showroom. When the mattress is delivered, the tags are often torn-off by the delivery person and discarded.

1995: British open flame standard for mattresses adopted in European Standard EN 597-2. CPSC does not adopt an open flame standard.

1997: Two studies performed by CPSC and Sleep Products Safety Council (ISPA) to evaluate field incidents of mattress and bedding fires.

1998: Mattress industry association, International Sleep Products Association (ISPA) sponsors research at National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) to measure fire performance of bed clothes.


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