WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government says it will create a new safety standard to reduce the severity of mattress fires that kill hundreds of people each year, most of them children.
The goal of the new rule is to ensure that mattresses burn less intensely when exposed to small, open flames and bedding that's already on fire, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said Wednesday. All three commission members voted to develop the regulations.
While the new standard won't prevent mattresses from catching fire, having them burn more slowly will give people more time to escape, said agency spokesman Ken Giles.
``This standard is going to save lives,'' he said.
In 1998, the last year for which figures were available, more than 18,000 residential fires began with burning mattresses or bedding such as sheets and pillows, the agency said. Those fires caused $200 million in property damage, 390 deaths and 2,160 injuries that required emergency room treatment.
From 1994 through 1998, children younger than 15 accounted for over three-quarters of the deaths related to mattress and bedding fires ignited by small flames like those from candles, matches and lighters, the commission said.
Such fires usually begin when bedding ignites and the fire spreads to the mattress. Mattresses can then burn fast and very hot, leading to a ``flashover'' _ a burst of intense fire caused when flammable gases in the room ignite spontaneously or receive a rush of oxygen.
``That is the kind of catastrophic fire that is killing these kids,'' Giles said. He said children tend to hide in closets and corners during fires and the flashover gives them little time to escape or be rescued.
The new safety rule and testing will seek to prevent burning mattresses from causing flashover, he said.
The agency has been researching the dangers of mattresses ignited by open flames since 1998.
The Sleep Product Safety Council, a mattress industry group, has paid to develop methods for testing mattresses exposed to such fires, the safety commission said.
Last year, the Children's Coalition for Fire-Safe Mattresses, a group of burn survivors and concerned parents, petitioned the government to require residential mattresses to pass open-flame tests. The government voted Wednesday to approve those petitions.
The agency's vote to go ahead with creating a standard is the first step in a process that can take from several months to more than a year. The commission will review comments from the public and the industry before enacting the new rule.
An existing federal standard requires that mattresses not catch fire when exposed to heat from cigarettes, which don't burn as hot as open flames.