Flammable furniture

I'm a former New Yorker who used to pay big rent for a tiny apartment. So I should have recoiled in horror watching the city's fire department torch 20 perfectly good homes on Governors Island in the harbor. But I didn't -- because it's money well spent.

The fire department is called "New York's Bravest" ever since the 9/11 terrorist attack killed hundreds of their brothers who rushed into the World Trade Center to save lives. And in trying to figure out a way to save more lives, including their own, they stuffed those 20 homes with plastic-filled furniture, probably like the kind which decorates your house, and set them ablaze to see how hot they would burn and the best way to cool them down.

Hell breaks loose I decided to take a quick trip to a furniture store where I learned that almost every couch, chair and bed was stuffed with petroleum-based compounds like polyurethane and covered with other compounds such as rayon and polyester. This is why mattresses spring back to shape, and couch cushions recover even after a hefty person sits on them.

While at the store, I lifted up the cushions. The labels confirmed that virtually every piece of furniture contains polyurethane and most coverings are also petroleum-based. Only high-end furniture makers such as Rowe and Broyhill still use cotton. The labels note that everything is "fire-retardant" and "meets California standards," but firemen know better. When a fire starts, all hell breaks loose … literally.

"Petroleum-based synthetic materials have supplanted natural materials in furnishing…and accelerated the speed of fire growth," says Underwriters Laboratories. So they burn faster and hotter, surpassing 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit and shortening the escape time from a burning house. Since they also produce more smoke, if you don't know where you are going and don't stay low to the ground, your chances of making it out are far less.

There have been some ugly fires, not necessarily caused by but certainly accelerated by polyurethane foam. A 2007 fire in a Charleston, S.C., furniture store killed nine firemen and a year-earlier blaze in a rundown Reno, Nev., hotel where old mattresses were stacked in the hall killed 12.

Insurers don't set standards Insurers referred my calls to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, which referred me to an "expert" at Underwriters Laboratories who didn't return my emails. There doesn't seem to be a federal standard for what materials you can use in furniture, how hot it can burn or how much smoke it can give off.

Since insurers tend to avoid conflict, I guess it's just easier to require people to have smoke alarms to alert them when a home is burning, instead of taking on the furniture industry. The only relevant guidance comes from the National Association of State Fire Marshals, which appealed to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to do something three years ago. Wisely so, since it's the firemen, and not the FTC or the insurance companies, who routinely put their lives on the line.

By burning down those houses in New York, firemen discovered a new way to deal with the furniture menace. Instead of knocking a hole in the roof to "ventilate," which only gives the burning furnishings more oxygen, they plan to pump in water from below to keep the synthetic fabrics from reaching the critical point. Burn baby burn -- but only in a controlled fashion.