The Sleep Products Safety Council explains the purpose of the mandatory mattress fire test and what is required to pass:
The principal aspect of the national mattress standard (referred to as 16 CFR Part 1633) is the “open-flame” test. The standard requires that any fire resulting from a mattress exposed to an open-flame heat source, such as lighters, matches, or candles, must burn more slowly and generate less heat than fires involving non-compliant mattresses today.
Simply put, the standard will substantially increase the amount of time that consumers will have to detect and escape from a mattress fire.
How? Lower heat output rates reduce the risk of flashover, which occurs when the entire contents of a room ignite simultaneously – making conditions in the room untenable and safe exit impossible – and the fire spreads to other rooms in the home.
Passing the Test
The test methods for the standard are based on research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Sleep Products Safety Council. The new test criteria will help in evaluating a product’s increased fire resistance in compliance with the new law.
As of July 1, 2007, a mattress set must meet both of the following measures:
(1) The peak rate of heat release for the mattress set must not exceed 200 kilowatts at any time during the 30 minute test; and
(2) The total heat release must not exceed 15 megajoules for the first 10 minutes of the test.
What this means in practical terms
Anyone selling mattresses in the United States must have them tested. Normally they are tested with a foundation. If a mattress type can be sold without a foundation, it also must be tested without one.
Three mattresses must pass with a foundation, and three without a foundation in order to be legally sold within the United States.
This is wonderful business for burn rooms, but a fairly onerous demand for manufacturers. Therefore, the largest manufacturers have built their own testing rooms. The top burner needs to burn for 70 seconds, the side burner for 50 seconds, and the room must be controlled for temperature and humidity. Further, the mattress needs to be conditioned before the test, and the mattress “corpse” needs to be disposed of.
Conventional mattress industry representatives will tell you that the chemicals or chemically treated fabrics they use to pass the fire test are “safe.” To the rest of us, however, these chemicals are more likely to fit into the same category as genetically modified foods, growth hormones for animals, formaldehyde in building supplies, and carpet adhesives: “probably not safe.” If you contact enough mattress dealers and enough sellers, you will encounter misinformation, such as:
- Some salespeople claim that the law states that you must use chemical flame retardants to manufacture a mattress. That is not true.
- Some manufacturers claim that because wool can burn, it cannot help a mattress pass the fire test. That is not true. Individual strands, exposed to oxygen, of course will burn. But dense wool batting, properly designed and used in adequate quantity inside appropriate ticking, is slow to ignite. It does allow a mattress to pass the test and meet federal safely requirements.