In January 2000, a fire broke out in a dormitory at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. The fire killed three students and injured 58 others. The New Jersey Times Ledger reported that the fire spread quickly (emphasis mine):
Within just four minutes of the time a match or lighter ignited a paper banner draped over a couch, the student lounge became a lethal cauldron spewing black, oily smoke that blinded fleeing students and filled their blood with carbon monoxide.
That was the way the grand jury investigating the Seton Hall fire described the flames that spread through the freshman dormitory at Boland Hall. The couch, it said, untreated with fire retardant, became a virtual firebomb.
In 2001, the New York Times covered the aftermath of the blaze and focused on demands that the school install sprinklers and adopt “mandatory fire retardancy standards” for dorm furniture.
The fire at Seton Hall at least briefly focused renewed attention on the issue of mandatory sprinklers, leading New Jersey to require them in college dormitory rooms. But almost no attention has been focused on an issue that has been a source of controversy among fire experts and manufacturers for more than a decade — the millions of pieces of furniture made with polyurethane foam that lead to 540 fire-related deaths and thousands of injuries each year.
Critics, including the National Association of State Fire Marshals, say polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture poses well-known fire hazards. They have urged the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to adopt the first national, mandatory fire retardancy standards for the furniture.
But this wasn’t the first time people demanded fire-retardants be included in the manufacture of furniture. The Star Ledger provides a brief history:
In 1994, the National Association of State Fire Marshals petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to devise flammability standards for upholstered furniture. The organization claimed the foam was a national killer and one of the most dangerous materials found in American homes.
The commission has been studying the problem ever since. In the meantime, fires caused by a small flame coming into contact with upholstered furniture kill 80 people a year, said commission spokesman Ken Giles.
"We've known how dangerous these fires are for a long time, and we know how to protect people," said Donald Bliss, president of the national fire marshalls association.
"You can treat the foam. You can treat the fabric with a coating. You can put a barrier around the foam," he said.
Fast forward to today—the age of Alarmism. Now, over a decade past the Seton Hall fire, memories have faded and people are literally inventing things to fear. Enter the chemphobes who have been making noise about…you guessed it…flame-retardants, and are calling for the removal of these chemicals in furniture. According to one report, they’ve made some progress with administrators at (natch) Harvard University:
Harvard’s administration said last week that it will do what it can to respond to student requests to get rid of flame retardants on campus.
“Harvard is actively seeking to purchase furniture to help meet that goal, while continuing to meet safety requirements included in state law,” Harvard College spokesperson Colin Manning said in a statement.
What’s really depressing about this story (besides the fact that Harvard plans to make dorms less safe) is that the effort is being led by Harvard students with the assistance of their teachers.
Who are these teachers?
Clearly, it isn’t their chemistry teachers. One hopes, if a Harvard chemistry professor got a whiff of this nonsense they’d point out to these gullible students (and the nitwit literature professor no-doubt helping them) that exposure to gasses released from flame-retardants (and other chemicals) does not equal toxicity. Of course, these students would counter that statement by rattling off a number of so-called “studies” that claim to show harm due to flame-retardant exposure but what they won’t mention are the details of those studies which usually involve rats or mice being injected with massive doses of the chemical directly into their tiny, little rat blood streams. The point is, people aren’t injecting the stuff into their bodies; They’re simply sitting on a couch that is treated with the chemical. Big difference.
Another common claim is that flame-retardants don’t work which makes people ask why are we using them in the first place? But what people need to understand is that flame-retardants aren’t designed to prevent or put out fires; rather, these chemicals delay the spread of fires. That’s why these chemicals are called retardants, not Fire STOPPERS. If that "firebomb" of a couch in the dorm at Seton Hall University had been treated with a flame-retardant chemical, the fire might not have spread so fast and there may have been fewer deaths and injuries.
Another lesson from which these students could benefit is some instruction on the economic costs of their efforts. Do they have any concept of how much it will cost Harvard to replace every stick of furniture? Neither do I but I know I can't replace my couch in the basement right now because I don't have a few extra thousand dollars hanging around. Do they care that this money could be directed at, you know, the students who, last I checked, pay some pretty high prices to attend the school.
Of course, if these students get their way and flame-retardants are removed from dorm rooms and after everyone’s done patting themselves on the back for making these buildings (that are filled with kids) less safe, there will at some point be another tragedy and we’ll see renewed demands for flame-retardant furniture. People will say “how could this happen,” or “why weren’t the students protected.” And the cycle will continue again and again.
Maybe someone will even make a documentary about it. If they need any pointers on how to drive home the point that flame-retardants save lives, they can always watch this once award winning, but now-forgotten, documentary made about the Seton Hall tragedy…