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NIST Develops Tests to Determine Fire Safety of Cigarettes

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have developed two tests that can be used to measure the likelihood that a cigarette will ignite soft furnishings such as a couch or mattress.

Cigarettes are by far the leading cause of fire fatalities in the United States. In 1990, the most recent year for which data are available, 25 percent of all residential fire deaths were due to cigarette-ignited fires. In that year, cigarettes started 44,000 structural fires that caused 1,220 deaths, 3,358 civilian injuries and $400 million in direct property loss.

Completed last August as part of the Fire Safe Cigarette Act of 1990, the tests were developed to measure the fire performance of cigarettes. This research builds on work conducted by NIST, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and others under the Cigarette Safety Act of 1984. As a result of the 1984 legislated studies, experts found that it is technically feasible and may be commercially feasible to develop a cigarette that will have a significantly reduced propensity to ignite furniture and mattresses.

"What was needed, however, was a reliable test that would accurately and consistently reflect what happens when cigarettes are dropped on furnishings," says Richard Gann, chief of the Fire Science Division in NIST's Building and Fire Research Laboratory. "These simple tests are available to the cigarette industry now," says Gann. "They can form the basis for a possible performance standard, if lawmakers determine that is needed, and can assist the cigarette industry in adhering to possible standards and in testing for quality assurance," he adds. The cigarette industry assisted NIST in this study and also participated in the Technical Advisory Committee that worked with NIST and CPSC.

Both tests measure the ability of a cigarette to ignite material. One, called the Mock-up Ignition Method, uses three types of simulated upholstery cushions. All three cushions are composed of a single layer of cotton duck, commonly known as canvas, over polyurethane foam. The major difference is that each has a different weight of cotton duck--the higher the weight, the harder it is to ignite.

Cotton duck was chosen because it is used in large quantities by the military, ensuring it will be available indefinitely and that its properties will remain consistent. The test results can be linked to other widely used upholstery materials.

The other test, the Cigarette Extinction Method, uses 3, 10 or 15 layers of standard cellulosic filter paper to replace the cotton duck and polyurethane foam.

Both methods give consistent results, says Gann. However, he believes the mock-up test is a better choice for a performance standard because it can discriminate better among cigarettes of high or moderate ignition propensity. In addition, according to Gann, "While the extinction test has materials that are easier to control, it does not look as much like the real-world fire scenario as the mock-up test."

Nine laboratories, including several in the cigarette industry, showed the test results can be repeated and reproduced better than most current fire tests.

The 1990 act also directed NIST to compile performance data for commercial cigarettes using the test methods. NIST researchers found that, with one minor exception, the 14 current best sellers ignited the fabrics in all tests. The tobacco packing density, paper permeability and circumference were similar among these brands. By contrast, tests of six other brands currently on the market showed much lower ignition propensities.

In research directed under the 1984 act, NIST had found that thinner cigarettes with less tobacco and less porous paper, which cuts air circulation in the cigarette, can significantly reduce the chance of igniting soft furnishings. The six brands with reduced ignition propensities had some of these properties.

NIST promotes U.S. economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards. NIST is a non-regulatory agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration.

Released December 16, 1993, Updated November 27, 2017