Larry Cazermaintenance worker at St. Joseph’s Academy, came home one day in November of 2011 to find his house charred, smothered in black smoke and fire trucks all around. Firefighters believe the cause of the fire to be from an electrical outlet that sparked and caught the couch on fire. The fire had spread rapidly, creating a thick layer of black smoke throughout the entire house. Larry’s mother was found passed out on the floor, burnt from the waist up because of her loose fitting apron caught fire. As the couch melted down, it turned into a hazardous liquid that also ate through the skin and bone of his mother’s hand. She suffered life-threatening injuries, which started from a mere spark. 

Common fabrics can burn and pose great dangers in the home. This photo shows felt on fire, which takes longer to burn because it is made up of closely condensed fibers. Credit: Lauren Brandon.

   According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), more than 4,000 consumers a year suffer severe burn injuries and an estimated 150 or more die when their clothing ignites from even minimal exposure to ordinary household ignition sources. Overall, each year fires claim over 12,000 lives in the United States, injure over 300,000 Americans, of which approximately 50,000 will be confined in hospitals for 6 weeks to 2 years, and destroy 12 billion dollars worth of property, according to information from FireTect, certified applicators and manufacturers of flame retardant materials.

     In 1953, the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA) was passed to regulate the manufacture of highly flammable clothing. In 1967, Congress revised the FFA to expand its coverage to include interior furnishings, as well as paper, plastic, foam and other materials used in wearing apparel and interior furnishings. After being created in 1972, responsibility for administering the FFA was transferred to the CPSC

      “The flammability and flame spread of the fabric depends on several things, like what it is made of, how it is made, if the weave is tight or loose, the texture, etc.,” states Firefighter Jim Panopoulos with the St. Louis City Fire Department. The fiber content of a fabric greatly affects the way the fiber burns. Fabrics containing cellulose burn quickly with a yellow flame, light smoke, and have glowing embers. On the other hand, synthetic fibers catch fire quickly, but sputter, flame and melt. 
     Both synthetic and natural fibers are produced from chemicals. Synthetic fibers are present in many everyday uses in and around the house. “Because these are so common in all houses today, home fires have become much hotter and more toxic to homeowners, firefighters, and the environment,” says Firefighter Matt Kemper of the Cottleville, MO Fire Department.
     The method of fabric making has a high effect on the burning behavior. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Iowa State University of Science and Technology [PDF], heavier fabrics, such as those worn in winter, are more difficult to ignite, and they burn longer because there is more fabric present. Wool and silk are included in the group of fabrics that are difficult to ignite, but the fabric density affects the rate at which they extinguish. Also, fabrics with more fiber surface area are likely to burn more easily because more of the fabric is exposed to oxygen which increases burning. 
     There is a great, commonly mistaken difference between the labeling of flame retardant fabrics and flame resistant fabrics. Flame resistant fabrics simply prolong the burning of a piece of fabric and do not completely prevent the substance from burning. Flame retardant fabrics, on the other hand, will resist the spread of flames. How the fabric fits to the body also plays a key role in the risk of burning. Clothing closer to the skin is less likely to stray into a flame or heat source. Tighter fitting clothing moves with the body.
     The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Iowa State University of Science and Technology also state that the riskiest fabrics to wear are cottons and linens, while synthetic fiber fabrics, such as aramid, novoloid, and vinyon, are safer. These latter fabrics are the safest because they char but will not burn. Today, many articles of clothing are created with nonflammable fabric, especially infant sleepwear. When the FFA was first created, most flame resistant clothing was created by adding special finishes to the fabric. Now, flame resistant fabrics are generally created by altering the molecule of the fabric. 
     The Safety Protection Warehouse, provider of flame retardant clothing, explains: “Flame retardant attributes are embedded into the core of the cotton fibers to make them permanently flame resistant. Fabrics that are chemically treated during the manufacturing process with non-water soluble water chemicals are considered to be durably flame resistant.” Fire resistant fibers are commonly found in baby clothing and in work uniforms for jobs that require interaction with fire ignition sources. 
     Panopoulos adds, “I know some of the deadliest fires have occurred from theatres or night clubs that used very flammable decorations.” He advises: “Do not put a space heater too close to any furnishings.” An easy step to fire prevention is to secure sources of ignition out of the reach of young children who could potentially be tempted to play with such hazards. 
     Larry Cazer’s mother is still making a gradual recovery from her burns and injuries from thefire. Her injuries were very serious and have a lasting effect on the rest of her life. “Always expect the unexpected. Fires are a serious hazard and can happen at any time,” warns Panopolous. “You can never be too careful when it comes to taking fire safety precautions.” Lauren Brandon

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  1. wow. "more than 4,000 consumers a year suffer severe burn injuries and an estimated 150 or more die when their clothing ignites from even minimal exposure to ordinary household ignition sources."