The United States has the highest rate of deaths from house fires of any nation in the world and this will change only when there are more fire-resistant fabrics, furniture and bedding, experts say.
About 6,000 Americans die annually in fires, mainly because of smoldering couches, burning mattresses and plastics and home fabrics that burst quickly into flame, turning rooms into traps of choking gas, intense heat and death.As bad as it is now, said Gordon Nelson, a Florida Institute of Technology expert on fire resistant materials, it was once even worse.
"We have made progress over the last century, reducing deaths from fire from 10 to about two per 100,000," he said Monday. "But over the past decade, the statistics have stalled. We are not improving."
In research presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, Nelson and other fire experts said the United States can save thousands of lives by adopting new standards for flammable fabrics.
"We have the worst fire record in the world," said Marcelo M. Hirschler of the Safety Engineering Laboratories in Rocky River, Ohio. "And the most serious problem is in residential fires that ignite furniture or mattresses."
Such fires, he said, account for 40 percent of all fire fatalities, principally because blazes fed by rugs, curtains and bedding spread too rapidly for people to flee.
To combat this problem, researchers are developing ways of measuring the fire hazard of fabrics to find what is called a "heat release rate." Once this rate is established for the fabrics now used in the home, manufacturers can build furniture that burns less rapidly, Hirschler said.
In a typical fire, he said, burning materials can release heat into a room until temperatures become so high that there is a "flash over."
"That means the temperature is such that everything in that room will burn and no life in that room has any possibility of being saved," he said.