Originally created 04/18/99

Upholstery of death



Karen Wright spent her last moments huddled in the bathtub of her mobile home, breathing poison.

The teen-ager escaped the flames that started when an electrical spark ignited a living room love seat. But she couldn't elude the swirl of deadly cyanide gas and carbon monoxide that forms when foam inside sofa and chair cushions burns.

Firefighters from the Meriwether Volunteer Fire Department found Karen in the bathroom of the family's smoke-filled North Augusta mobile home on Springhaven Drive just after midnight Feb. 4, 1998.

The poisonous cloud knocked her 11-year-old sister, DeeAnn, unconscious within reach of the front door. There, the intense heat from two flaming couches seared 96 percent of her body.

Neighbors pulled the badly burned girl from the home before firefighters arrived.

Since that blaze, she has remained in hospitals in Georgia and Texas, her hands and feet gone, her lungs scarred, her heart failing, and her body draped for months with pig and cadaver skin until doctors could graft laboratory-grown skin.

Karen and DeeAnn never knew a sofa could burn as easily as gasoline.

The government did.

FEDERAL REGULATORS AND FURNITURE makers have known for more than two decades that the foam in most sofa cushions is highly flammable, emits deadly gases when it burns and kills hundreds of Americans each year.

Firefighters call the foam "solid gasoline."

For decades federal prisons, airline regulators and the state of California have outlawed furniture that isn't fire-retardant. But after 27 years, the federal government still is working on a rule that would give similar protection to the rest of the nation.

Because of lobbying by the furniture industry and a congressman from a furniture town, it won't be enacted this year either.

"It would be nice if someone else never had to go through this," said DeeAnn and Karen's mother, Jeannie South, who quit her job to spend each day in DeeAnn's hospital room, caressing and reading to a child who cries and speaks only in rare monosyllables.

"Sometimes all you need is a chance. My room was closed off, so I had a chance," she said. "They didn't."

The blaze that swept their home is all too common. Each year about 10,000 fires start in upholstered furniture, causing more than 500 deaths, 1,100 injuries and more than $150 million in property loss, according to federal fire statistics. Those fires account for one in four fire deaths and kill more Americans than chain saws, off-road vehicles or any of the 15,000 other products regulated by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, a federal agency.

The reason lies inside the cushions of millions of chairs and sofas.

What gives 90 percent of upholstered furniture its softness is polyurethane foam, a spongy material that's much less expensive than down but is created from a petroleum base that makes it highly flammable.

When it burns, it spreads in seconds and radiates an intense heat that can roast flesh, even if the victim isn't touched by the flames. After the fire at DeeAnn and Karen's house was over, a stack of compact disks lay melted on Karen's dresser in a room the fire never reached. DeeAnn was in the blazing living room.

The foam also gives off a deadly cloud of poisonous gases. Among them: carbon monoxide, the lethal vapor Dr. Jack Kevorkian used to help patients commit suicide, and cyanide, the gas used to execute prisoners in some states.

NO WARNING LABELS ARE required to notify consumers of the danger. The strongest warnings are on labels the public never sees.

One manufacturer ships foam to furniture makers with a tag that reads, "This foam can burn fast ... resulting in great heat, generating dangerous and potentially toxic gas and thick smoke ... If foam starts burning -- get out."

Few furniture makers pass those warnings on to consumers, although some give toned-down warnings that urge caution.

Firefighters are among the few Americans who understand the hazard. Randy Sellnow, fire chief in Oregon, Wis., can't shake the memory of one of his first fire calls, when toxic fumes killed three children who were playing with matches on an upholstered chair. The fumes acted so quickly the children couldn't escape.

"The victims that we had that day -- there's one I'll never forget as long as I live. An 11-year-old girl," he said. "She had two small burns. Beyond that there was nothing ... . But it was a terribly smoky fire."

For years manufacturers have known how to make furniture fire-retardant. Some spray chemicals on the back of the covering fabric. Others treat the foam with fire retardants or place a fireproof barrier between foam and fabric.

At the urging of state fire marshals, the Consumer Products Safety Commission has drafted a regulation to require upholstered furniture to meet minimum fire-retardant standards. If the agency's three commissioners vote to approve it, the rule would have the force of law. As it stands, the draft rule would require furniture fabrics to resist an open flame for 20 seconds.

This extra safety comes at a price -- the cost of three pizzas.

Furniture makers could meet the planned rule for $22 to $28 per sofa, the agency says. Treating a dining room chair would cost $4 to $6.

"That's a small price to pay for the life of a child," said Ann Brown, chairwoman of the consumer protection agency.

Requiring all furniture in the United States to meet the standard would cost the $16 billion retail furniture industry $460 million to $720 million, regulators say, although some of that cost might be passed along to the consumer.

Furniture makers don't quarrel with those numbers, but they do say there are better, less expensive ways to cut furniture fires, like requiring smoke detectors in every home.

"There's a recognition in our industry that we produce one of the products that's involved in residential fires," said Russell Batson, spokesman for the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. "But it is worth questioning whether there are approaches that, while not product-specific, would have a broader impact. ... For better or for worse, we're living in a universe of finite resources."

New Hampshire Fire Marshal Don Bliss, who has led the campaign by state fire marshals for a national standard, disagrees.

"It costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 to $200 to make the average couch, which costs $800 or $900," he said. "We question the need for the added cost even to be passed on to the consumer."

Furniture makers note that retailers get a large share of markups.

FEDERAL REGULATORS HAVE KNOWN since the early 1970s that upholstered furniture poses an especially potent fire hazard. At the time, they stood at the vanguard of fire safety.

The Department of Transportation set fire safety rules for car seats in 1971. A year later the Department of Commerce published A Possible Finding of Need for a Flammability Standard for Upholstered Furniture, pointing out the high death toll and the technology available to curb it. Airline regulators set rules to protect passenger seats, and the Bureau of Prisons issued rules requiring fire protection for prison furniture.

But after the Consumer Products Safety Commission assumed oversight of furniture in 1973, it declined to enact rules on household furniture. In 1981, the agency voted not to require flame-retardant furniture.

One of the agency's biggest critics is Ms. Brown, who has been running it since 1994.

"This is an agency that was all bun and no beef. It was inactive," she said. "I would agree with the fire community that the agency was not doing its job before, and I'm glad to say that we are doing so now."

California officials, tired of waiting for a federal standard, passed their own in 1974. Britain followed suit in 1989.

Gordon Damant is a fire-safety consultant who helped write California's law. The way he sees it, the federal government could have spared the lives of thousands of Americans had it acted when California did.

"If you can give people even a few seconds to escape a fire, you can save their lives," Mr. Damant said. "Look, the technology exists. Furniture manufacturers are, in fact, complying with it in California."

Mr. Damant is testifying in Jeannie South's lawsuit against two furniture makers. Neither he nor her lawyers, David Zacks and Ray Chadwick of Kilpatrick Stockton, would comment on the case.

California requires cover fabric to resist an open flame for one second and foam to be treated with fire-retardant chemicals. The planned federal rule would require treatment of fabric only.

California regulators say the state's rule has saved lives. The state had 18 deaths compared, with 700 nationally in 1991, according to a study. With about 10 percent of the national population, California would have had 70 deaths at the national rate.

Furniture makers acknowledge that furniture fire deaths in California have decreased much faster than nationally. But they point to other reasons: strict smoke-detector requirements and fewer smokers.

The reason the federal government hasn't given consumers the same fire protection it gives prisoners lies in Washington and in furniture-making towns like High Point, N.C., and Tupelo, Miss.

As the federal government considered regulations in the 1970s, the furniture industry sought to avoid them by creating a voluntary standard. It requires that furniture fabrics resist smoldering cigarettes, but not fires from matches and other open flames.

Although only about 260 of the nation's 1,500 furniture makers and importers agreed to it, consumer regulators say 83 percent of furniture complies. The industry says it's 92 percent.

DEATHS FROM FURNITURE FIRES started by cigarettes and cigars fell from 1,150 in 1980 to 410 in 1994. But the number of deaths related to furniture set afire by open flames such as matches, candles and cigarette lighters has changed little in the past two decades, with nearly 100 dying and 460 becoming injured yearly in 3,100 such fires.

There may be another problem with the voluntary rule: Federal researchers found that chemicals used on fabrics to resist smoldering embers of cigarettes might actually make fires from open flames faster, hotter and more toxic.

When federal regulators used those numbers in considering the fire marshals' request to adopt California's standard nationally, furniture makers turned to Congress. They appealed to Rep. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Tupelo, Miss., where furniture makers employ more workers than any other industry.

Mr. Wicker inserted a clause in a congressional bill last summer forbidding the safety commission from setting a furniture standard until the National Academy of Sciences conducts a study on whether fire-retardant chemicals are safe for workers and consumers. The commission already did that study, identifying at least five chemicals that could be used that are not considered hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. The academy's results are expected in January.

Mr. Wicker said he didn't trust the CPSC. He said he's worried about safety and the environment.

Ms. Brown points out that Mr. Wicker hasn't been a leader among environmentalists. The League of Conservation Voters has consistently given Mr. Wicker among the lowest ratings in Congress for his votes on environmental issues.

"This is a congressman responding more to the special interests of his constituents than to the health and safety needs of America's families," Ms. Brown said.

The furniture industry clearly is behind Mr. Wicker.

Since Mr. Wicker was elected in 1994 he has received $29,200 from furniture makers. His top contributor during the past two years has been the American Furniture Manufacturer's Association, which gave him $8,000.

"I'll tell you who also is behind me," Mr. Wicker said. "That is the thousands -- thousands -- of upholstered furniture workers throughout the country who want to work in a safe place. ... They want to have confidence that they don't have an increased risk of cancer."

Furniture makers have been even more generous to federal lawmakers and their political parties at large -- giving $3.1 million since 1991, an amount equal to DeeAnn Wright's medical bills so far.

Her mother had hoped to take her home as early as this month, but the child now is recovering from a second heart attack. Dr. Joseph Still says her case is the worst he's seen since he founded the burn unit at Columbia-Augusta Regional Medical Center 20 years ago. When she does come home, she'll have to remain in a climate-controlled environment for the rest of her life, because her grafted skin will leave her unable to sweat.

"I haven't even told her about Karen, although I think she senses it. We're going to have to work with her to deal with her grief," Ms. South said. "Right now, we're just trying to keep her alive."

Staff reports were also used in this story.