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NIST Will Lead Study on Dangers of Fire Smoke

The Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Fire Protection Research Foundation announced a research initiative to study how smoke and heat impede escape and survival in fires.

The research is designed to aid policy makers in determining whether, when and how to incorporate the sublethal effects of hot fire smoke in their safety decisions. Sublethal effects are those that do not result in instantaneous or nearly instantaneous death.

The announcement was made by Jack Snell, acting director of the NIST Building and Fire Research Laboratory, and Rick Mulhaupt, president of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.

Fire smoke consists of fine particles and hundreds of gases—some toxic, some harmless. Data analyses from the National Fire Protection Association have shown that most fire-related deaths are due to smoke inhalation, rather than the burns from the flames. Much already is known about how the inhalation of smoke leads directly to the deaths of building occupants and fire fighters. However, very little solid information exists about the more subtle effects of sublethal exposures to smoke. These effects include mental disorientation, eye irritation and coughing, which make it more difficult or impossible for someone to escape a building fire.

Richard G. Gann, chief of the Fire Science Division of the NIST Building and Fire Research Laboratory, will lead the NIST research team. James R. Hoover, global regulatory manager of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., will coordinate the effort with domestic and international standards committees. Thirty U.S. companies have shown an interest in funding up to a total of $1 million of this project. The study will take at least two years.

Gann noted: "There have been many reports from those who have escaped from fires of how the smoke and heat impeded their progress toward exits. Laboratory test animals also have shown distress from their exposure to fire smoke. What we need to do is develop accurate measures of this, making the transition from anecdotal accounts to the kind of scientific information you would like to see used in making life-and-death decisions."

The data portion of the program will examine existing information on post-fire health effects and prior studies of laboratory animals exposed to gases typical of those in fire smoke. Fire scenario analyses will help determine the types of fires in which these sublethal effects are likely to affect survival. The research team will develop a standard method for measuring the gases produced when everyday products burn, and they will construct a database of that information. The team also will assess the potential societal costs and benefits from the inclusion of tighter smoke requirements in building design specifications. Additionally, the team will study the potential for long-term health effects from exposure to smoke.

Mulhaupt noted the timeliness of the study. "Fire safety historically has focused on the prospect of a fire to cause death or property loss. Recent actions in international and national fire safety standards arenas have drawn attention to the difficulty of escaping a fire, and to fire injuries," he said. Snell emphasized the importance of credible technical data and measurements for effective decision making on this highly sensitive topic. Proposals calling for new safety measures based on fire-caused incapacitation and health effects recently have been introduced by the ISO and ASTM.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST promotes economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards through four partnerships: the Measurement and Standards Laboratories, the Advanced Technology Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Baldrige National Quality Program.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation is an affiliate of the National Fire Protection Association.

Released April 22, 1999, Updated November 27, 2017