Fire Safety and Technology Editorial

 

 

April 2009
 

 

Clothing Related Burn Casualties

An Overlooked Problem?

Guest editorial by Gordon Damant

A recent editorial (FS&T March 2009) raised an issue related to the flammability of adult diapers. While I agree with the premise of the editorial, that diaper fires occur very rarely and increased regulation of diapers appears to be unnecessary, some of the overall clothing fire statistics quoted need to be clarified.

The most widely consulted fire data source used by analysts to estimate fire losses associated with individual consumer products combines two inputs. These are the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), administered by the US Fire Administration, and the National Fire Protection Association’s annual survey of fire losses.

This source provides reasonably accurate national estimates of fire losses associated with such products as upholstered furniture, cigarettes, cigarette lighters, and mattresses. This source, however, is based on data collected from residential fires attended by the fire services. As such it is not especially appropriate for developing national fire loss estimates for clothing-related burns. As evidenced by CPSC’s residential fire loss estimates, fire-related burn injuries attributed to clothing seldom involve the fire services. Rather, they involve direct ignition of the garment and subsequent burn injuries requiring medical treatment without producing a fire event that requires a response by the fire services.

The most complete sources for clothing fire data are (a) thermal burn injury data collected by CPSC through the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) and (b) death data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services.

According to CPSC, NEISS is a national probability sample of approximately 100 hospital emergency departments in the US and its territories. Data from the NEISS sample are weighted based on the sample design to produce national estimates of the number of consumer product-related injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms.

The death data collected by NCHS are actual counts of deaths registered with the system, not national estimates like the NEISS information. NCHS states that, “It is believed that more than 99 percent of the births and deaths occurring in this country are registered.”

NEISS estimates of clothing related burn injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms each year over the ten-year period 1997-2006, varied from 3,728 to 5,008, with an annual average of 4,321 clothing related burn injuries. The average thermal burn injury estimates for the apparel categories reported and by age group over the ten-year period are shown below.

Age
All
0-4
5-14
15-24
25-64
65+
TOTAL
4,321
272
942
850
1.644
606
Nightwear
357
8
32
13
136
160
Daywear
3,205
190
801
697
1,175
343
Outerwear
249
17
34
51
115
32
Other
48
2
1
18
25
2
Not Specified
462
54
74
70
193
70

Daywear accounts for over 74% of all thermal burn injuries, with 53% of Daywear injuries associated with individuals under 25 years old. This is a highly unfavorable and disproportionate representation, since the age group constituted only 35% of the population. In contrast, the population 25-64 years old experienced a more favorable 37% of the Daywear injuries while constituting 52% of the population.

Burn death data for the six-year period 1999-2004 are presented below, showing frequency of death data for each of the six years and five age groupings. The NCHS data are not aggregated by apparel categories like the NEISS injury data.

Age
All
0-4
5-14
15-24
25-64
65+
1999
118
0
2
0
29
87
2000
125
0
1
4
24
96
2001
130
1
0
0
25
104
2002
116
0
2
0
28
86
2003
107
1
1
0
30
75
2004
126
0
0
0
32
94
6 year total
722
2
6
4
168
542

On average, 120 people died from clothing thermal burns per year between 1999 and 2004. Note that the distribution of deaths by age is dramatically different from the injury age distribution shown. Here, fully 75% of the victims were 65 or older.

Most textile products sold in the US are controlled by the provisions of the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA). The FFA was first enacted by the US Congress in 1953. Originally, the FFA itself included an existing commercial standard (CS 191-53) for the Flammability of General Wearing Apparel. This regulation is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations as the Standard for the Flammability of Clothing Textiles, 16 CFR 1610. The 16 CFR 1610 standard addressed only highly flammable children’s clothing and sheer negligee-type fabrics used for ladies’ garments. By the late 1960s, however, Congress decided that provisions of the FFA should be expanded beyond the limited scope of the General Wearing Apparel standard.

Most textile products sold in the US are controlled by the provisions of the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA). The FFA was first enacted by the US Congress in 1953. Originally, the FFA itself included an existing commercial standard (CS 191-53) for the Flammability of General Wearing Apparel. This regulation is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations as the Standard for the Flammability of Clothing Textiles, 16 CFR 1610. The 16 CFR 1610 standard addressed only highly flammable children’s clothing and sheer negligee-type fabrics used for ladies’ garments. By the late 1960s, however, Congress decided that provisions of the FFA should be expanded beyond the limited scope of the General Wearing Apparel standard.

In 1968, the US Department of Commerce issued a “Notice of Finding That Flammability Standard or Other Regulation May Be Needed and Institution of Proceedings,” which eventually concluded that the existing General Wearing Apparel flammability standard was inadequate to address the specific problems associated with children’s sleepwear.

Based on an improved test method, two additional standards were issued to regulate the flammability of children’s sleepwear sizes 0-6X and 7-14. While none of these standards tests actual garments (only fabric specimens), the vertical strip test method used in the Children’s Sleepwear Standards provides a more realistic flame source and fabric orientation, thus making it much more representative of typical accident scenarios. After the sleepwear standards were promulgated, clothing-related burns decreased, due in great measure to a dramatic drop in the frequency of incidents associated with the ignition of children’s sleepwear.

Since the advent of the two Children’s Sleepwear Standards (16 CFR 1615 & 1616), most of the national activity in the US to further reduce the fire losses associated with textile-related consumer products has targeted home furnishings and products that ignite those furnishings. The CPSC has been actively pursuing remedial actions involving mattresses and bedding, upholstered furniture, cigarette lighters, cigarettes, heating and cooking equipment, and candles.

Significant progress has been made; however, the clothing (apparel) problem continues to be overlooked. The only important clothing-related regulatory action in the past 20 years has been to reduce the scope of the protection covered by the Children’s Sleepwear Standards by allowing firms to market relatively safe, snug-fitting garments that have not been tested to meet the requirements of the standards.

The General Wearing Apparel standard (16 CFR 1610) requires igniting a specimen, measuring flame spread, and rating the product. It is a minimum standard that is more than 55 years old, and it has been essentially unchanged over this period. It was mandated by the US Congress in 1953 to remove from the marketplace only those few textiles and garments (such as long rayon pile cowboy chaps and rayon “torch” sweaters) that were the most dangerous and intensely flammable. The standard continues to do this job. Occasionally, CPSC finds such garments and takes action to remove them. But these actions are seldom taken. The fact remains that virtually all clothing textiles fully meet the requirements of this standard.

The vast majority of textile products subject to the test specified in this standard easily pass and are rated “Class 1 normal flammability.” This result erroneously implies that they are “safe” to use in clothing. The concept of “normal flammability” in the context of this test is very misleading as a measure of safety. Indeed, “normal flammability” is merely a term defined by this specific test method and regulation. Ordinary newsprint paper passes this test. Therefore, consumers should not be misled into thinking that a “does not ignite” result under these artificial conditions implies that a fabric will not ignite in real-world conditions.

Wearing Apparel Standard were addressed by the development and promulgation of the Children’s Sleepwear Standards (initiated in the late 1960s), but the flammability of most apparel continued to be regulated by the lenient General Wearing Apparel Standard.

The flammability Standard for General Wearing Apparel, 16 CFR 1610, is considerably less stringent than the flammability Standards for Children’s Sleepwear, which presents a more aggressive ignition source for each of these four test conditions: flame intensity, flame exposure time, flame impingement location, and fabric orientation. As a result, many fabrics that easily pass the General Wearing Apparel Standard fail the Children’s Sleepwear Standards. And, as is known, any fabric that passes the Children’s Sleepwear Standards will also pass the General Wearing Apparel Standard.

Almost all of the 4,300 persons who are seriously injured and the 120 who die each year do so in fires involving apparel that fully complies with the General Wearing Apparel Standard. Compliance with the General Wearing Apparel Standard offers little, if any, real protection to US consumers. Both the frequency and severity of such clothing-related burn casualties represent a major problem that is not going away. There has been no reduction in injuries or deaths in recent years. To our knowledge, there is no organized national activity underway to begin addressing these casualties: no standards under development, no public education efforts, no voluntary industry movement toward safer fabrics. The burn injury/death situation and the immense costs of hospitalization have been essentially ignored.

Tragedies are occurring every day in this country in which people are subjected to excruciating burns and sometimes die in clothing-related fires. The ultimate tragedy is that many of these losses are preventable; yet, this situation continues unabated.

Regulators should face their responsibilities, build on the proven
3
approach of the children’s sleepwear standards, and develop a modernized clothing flammability standard that adequately protects the public. The textile and apparel industries should voluntarily move toward the production of safer garments, at least for targeted age groups, by considering reasonable redesign of their products. This should be supplemented by the adoption of and conformance with an effective voluntary consensus flammability standard covering all apparel. In addition, the greater use of effective, visible, clothing fire warning labels should be implemented. Most consumers do not recognize or appreciate that the clothing they purchase is so vulnerable to burning. Partnerships should be created to develop and distribute consumer fire safety information to inform and educate consumers on safer garment constructions, including fiber choice, fit, and design. Consumers should become educated and more selective in their purchase decisions.

How is it possible that 120 deaths and 4,300 serious injuries every year are an acceptable casualty rate to our society? Clothing-related casualties will undoubtedly continue unless changes are made to the way that some clothing is manufactured. History shows that the frequency of deaths and injuries will decline if changes are made to the fabrics used in apparel. Such changes can be made by the apparel manufacturers in voluntarily shifting the fabrics they procure, by regulators applying their existing authority, or by the public in becoming more informed, leading to better purchasing decisions. Surely, these deaths and injuries related to clothing burns cannot continue to be overlooked.

 

Gordon Damant is the former chief of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings.

 

 

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