A wood or untreated paper under comparable exposure

Topics: DesignConstruction


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Last updated: September 15, 2019

A house fire can be devastating to a family. Not only does it hurt families financially but building fires are also very deadly.

Heat isn’t the only danger when it comes to a building fire. Many deaths are actually related to the fumes produced by the burning materials. More victims are killed from the smoke and gases of a flame than the burns they receive, excluding clothing fires.

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With synthetic materials being more and more commonplace, dangerous and unnatural gases become more common too. Gases like Hydrogen Cyanide and Carbon Dioxide can be given off when nylon and synthetic polymers burn, materials that are all used in extravagant amounts in the past few decades. This created such an issue that in 1970 BOCA Basic Building Code forced new regulations on materials that “give off smoke or gases more dense or more toxic than that given off by untreated wood or untreated paper under comparable exposure to heat or flame.” Even with these regulations, 51% of deaths during building fires were from only smoke inhalation between 2003-2007. These gases given off can cause asphyxiation, damage the respiratory system, and damage tissue. They are given off by burning materials like Polyethylene, Polystyrene, PVC, Polymethylmethacrylate, and Acrylic Fibers. Common gases to be seen in modern house fires are CO2(Carbon Dioxide), CO(Carbon Monoxide), COCl2(Carbonyl Dichloride) HCN(Hydrogen Cyanide), HCl(Hydrogen Chloride), and NO2(Nitrus Dioxide). These gases are all dangerous, especially in high quantities.

CO2 can stimulate your lungs, causing them to pump air at a faster rate. In a housefire setting, this can be dangerous, as it causes you to inhale more toxic gases and smoke. Carbon Monoxide can cause asphyxiation through the production of carboxyhaemoglobin, which reduces the oxygen supply for the tissues. COCl2 can cause major problems in the respiratory system, but often does not show symptoms until a fatal amount has already been inhaled. HCN produces a response to all living cells by inhibiting their ability to use oxygen. HCl damages the upper respiratory track and causes asphyxiation and death. NO2 is an irritant that works by developing nitric acids.Gases aren’t the only concern with modern material.

A series of experiments conducted by ABC News’s “I-Team” showed the differences between older and newer materials reactions in the case of a fire. Their results show that the previous 17-minute safety time to escape a burning home have been reduced to 3 minutes. The small, simulated rooms were ignited by a candle at the same time. The room furnished with more modern materials not only “flashed over” 8x faster than it took the more antique room, but it also emitted a much darker orange flame with very thick, black smoke.

The cotton, wool, and down furnishings in the second room burned slowly, consumed by a lighter colored fire with more grey smoke. Thomas Styczynski, the fire chief helping run the experiments, states that the newer materials were like “a solid form of gasoline…they give off different gases…all those which are very toxic.”Research at Underwriter Laboratories has also shown the dangers of modern materials. Their experiments with building supplies has shown that more modern building supplies are more at risk of collapse during fires. Ron Hazelton, a home repair expert, contractor, and television host, states that under normal circumstances newer materials are better. They are stronger and weigh less.

The drawback is that in a fire, they fall in sooner. Older construction used much larger, thicker planks of wood. This wood would char on the outside, but the structural integrity would remain as the inside was untouched. Newer construction involved a lot of plywood, many pieces of wood compressed and stuck together with glue. It burns more quickly and at a much higher temperature, causing it to fail all at once rather than it being a slow process. The dangers of these combined effects are obvious.

These deadly scenarios caused such a problem that in 2011 a workshop was put together specifically for the sake of correcting the breathing apparatus used by firemen. The breathing protection is the most vulnerable part of their equipment. They discussed and came up with many different designs, but all seem to be far too susceptible to damage and leakage in high heats created by fast burning synthetic materials. Many of these masks crack or melt at the extreme temperatures. This has made an already deadly situation worse. With more toxic gases, hotter, faster growing flames, and less time before a building collapses, housefire victims and first responders have never been more at risk. The likelihood of getting out is much lower as the window of opportunity closes.

These gasses and fast burning flames seem to be almost entirely because of the synthetic fabrics and materials as well as the newer materials that are being used for construction of the house itself. It is a very concerning, pressing issue.

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