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The Facebook page QI - Quite Interesting has approximately 390 thousand followers. It posted a claim in December 2022 about the time available to escape a house on fire.

It claims a dramatic decrease due to the "flammability of modern furniture" but provides no references to support the statement.

Has modern furniture significantly decreased the time available to escape a house fire?

In the 1980s you had 17 minutes to escape a house fire in the average American home, but because of the flammability of modern furniture, it's now closer to 3 minutes.

While the claim to limited to "American" houses, information on the phenomenon from other regions is of interest and would tend to support or reject the claim in general.

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2 Answers 2

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TLDR: Not quite accurate, since the canonical source was referring to furnishings - i.e. all the possessions in a home, not just furniture.

Background

When a fire is investigated, the reports go to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and UL Enterprise (formerly Underwriter's Laboratories). They craft US standards for facilities and products, respectively.

More examples of the claim

These claims are widely repeated, including by relevant authorities, such as the Tooele Army Depot Fire Department:

Facebook meme containing similar claim

Other examples include Washington Post, Think Reliability and Turn To 23.

They generally cite UL as their source.

Experimental Evidence

UL does demonstrations, includes building mock living rooms and igniting them, including for this TODAY show presentation.

This has been independently repeated, with similar results.

Other Factors

Toxicity

One thing never discussed in UL's presentation is the relative toxicity of the synthetic materials versus the traditional materials. The synthetics are typically built around cyanates or similar compounds used in 2-part in-situ formation of long-chain molecules.

When these synthetics burn, the smoke is much more toxic to humans than smoke from traditional materials, and impede brain and motor function, making escape more difficult and further shortening the time to escape.

This isn't discussed in any of the material, but it probably is a factor in the "3-minute escape".

Structural Collapse

More modern materials are more susceptible to being damaged by fire (foam, plus glues in laminated materials being flammable or simply the glues weakening in the high temperature)and collapse faster.

This has been widely reported: Example, Example, Example.

Footnotes:

  • The tests aired on the TODAY show featured John Drengenberg who works for UL Proper, not the LLC. LinkedIn and UL's own pages.

  • The claim is also repeated by a non-profit arm of UL Enterprise, the Firefighter Safety Research Institute.

  • The American Home Furnishings Alliance represents manufacturers. Their statement, from today.com:

    In the 1970s, much of the upholstered furniture manufactured in the United States transitioned to polyurethane foam and other synthetic materials for cushions. Polyurethane foam is valued for its durability, affordability and hypoallergenic qualities. Furthermore, as the industry began researching ways to make upholstered furniture more fire-safe, polyurethane foam was found to help reduce the chance of ignition from a smoldering source.

    This was important, because in all available data from the 1970s through today, the vast majority of home fires that involve upholstered furniture are ignited by a smoldering source.

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  • Hi Harper. One of your links needs an additional bracket. It ahould have been [facilities][1] Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 22:43
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This statement appears to be partially true.

The source of the claim is research conducted by Underwriters Laboratories. Underwriters Laboratories is approved by OSHA to perform safety testing, so they're likely at least somewhat trustworthy. It may be worth noting, however, that since 2012, Underwriters Laboratories has been part of the for-profit company UL LLC. The research that produced this claim was conducted in 2012.

The first thing that makes this claim only partially true is that furniture was only one variable in the experiments.

In 2012, scientists at UL (Underwriters Laboratory) designed a series of experiments that focused on the size and geometry of modern homes as well as current furnishings and building materials. The experiments tested three modern home configurations against three so-called “legacy” configurations containing furniture UL described as being similar to furniture made in the 1950s.

"Newer homes and furniture burn faster, giving you less time to escape a fire" - Today

"The backing of your carpet is synthetic, your drapes are synthetic, the couch, the pillows are synthetic," explained John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for UL. "They burn hotter and faster than natural materials do."

Time

So, the claim's veracity could be easily improved - though perhaps only slightly - if it was changed to "...because of the flammability of modern home furnishings..."

It does not appear in-dispute that certain synthetic home furnishings can burn more quickly and hotter, when exposed to open flames; and it's likely the case that "newer" homes contain more of these kinds of furnishings.

However, the more we dig into this research, the shakier the broad conclusions seem.

We must note that the source of UL's claims is experimental data, not observations of real home fires.

One important thing to note about real house fires is that, according to "all available data from the 1970s through today, the vast majority of home fires that involve upholstered furniture are ignited by a smoldering source" (Time).

This is very important, because,

although “legacy” furniture made around the 1950s may ignite more slowly than “modern” furniture when exposed to an open flame, it ignites faster than “modern” furniture containing polyurethane foam when exposed to a smoldering source – which, again, is the most common ignition source in home fires involving upholstered furniture.

Time

What this suggests is that, if you, for instance, drop a lit cigarette on your "modern" couch, it will take a long time to ignite, and may never do so. Whereas, if you dropped that cigarette on an chair with a hair and cotton seat pad, it might ignite quickly. After those fires have ignited, you might get different outcomes based on the kind of furnishings. But this raises the question:

You have 2-3 minutes to escape starting when? This question is proving strangely difficult to answer. Not only does UL not specify, many other sources give similarly vague warnings:

Ready.gov: "A fire can become life-threatening in just two minutes. A residence can be engulfed in flames in five minutes."

American Red Cross: "Two minutes is the amount of time that fire experts say you may have to safely escape a home fire before it’s too late."

SF-Fire.org: "In only 3 1/2 minutes, the heat from a house fire can reach over 1100 degrees Fahrenheit."

Building codes have been getting more strict and more sophisticated, and newer homes will have more and better placed smoke detectors, better wiring, and construction that's aimed to control the spread of fire.

FULL STATEMENT FROM THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF HOME BUILDERS:

"According to the National Fire Protection Association, the leading causes of unintentional, nonconfined home fires are older heating and lighting equipment along with antiquated electrical distribution.

All data show that fatalities decrease when older, less safe homes are replaced with new homes that include safer construction based on newer building codes. These improvements include draft stopping in concealed spaces, safer appliances, changes to the electrical code and requiring hardwired, interconnected smoke alarms."

Time

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