Fabric Flammability and the Elderly

written by Jacqueline P.


            According to data collected and analyzed by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), there were 4007 fire-related fatalities in the United States in 2001.  Risk of death or injury by fire increases dramatically with age:  thirty-one percent of those people who died in 2001 of fire-related causes were over the age of 65.  On average, more than 1,000 Americans aged 65 and older die in home fires each year, and more than 2000 are injured.  The elderly are at least 2.5 times more likely to die in a residential fire than the rest of our population.  The "oldest old," adults over age 85, are four times more likely to die in a fire than members of other age groups.


            There are many reasons why the elderly are at greater risk of being harmed by fire.  The physical and mental changes that occur as people age can impair their abilities to prevent fires, or to safely respond to fires, or situations in which fire is likely.  These physical, cognitive and social factors that increase fire risk among the elderly are numerous, and one individual may face several different challenges simultaneously, compounding his or her risk.  People over 65 typically experience sensory changes that include loss of ability to smell, diminished sense of touch, vision impairments, and hearing loss.  These sensory impairments reduce the person's ability to perceive fire, heat, smoke, or flame in time to avoid injury.


            A reduction in cognitive functioning and overall mental health may increase fire risk among the elderly, also.  Nationally, 4.5 million people suffer from Alzheimer's disease, which greatly affects an individual's memory and cognitive functions.  Dementia, (general deterioration of intellectual faculties) and Alzheimer's disease cause mental impairments that make dangerous and fire-risky behaviors more likely, especially among the elderly living in home residences rather than institutional facilities.  Depression affects nearly one third of older people, and its common symptoms---fatigue, loss of energy, thoughts of fatality or suicide, confusion, and avoidance---also may increase risk of injury or death from fire.


            Most Americans over 65 experience a reduction in mobility to some degree, which clearly would impact their ability to respond to or escape from a fire.  In 1999, approximately 20 percent of Americans over age 65 were classified as "chronically disabled."  According to statistics compiled by the United States Department of Health and Human Services in 1997, nearly half of all Americans age 65 - 69 suffered from some form of disability or mobility impairment, and that percentage of people afflicted increased to 73.6% in those over 80 years of age.  Many injuries and accident-related fatalities among the elderly are attributed to falls.  Approximately one-third of adults over 65 fall each year, with 10 percent suffering a serious injury.  For those who have fallen, two-thirds will fall again within six months.  Seventy-five percent of these falls occurred in or around the home.  Clearly, the risk of falling is a serious link to the risk of fire-related injury among the elderly.


            Finally, the widespread use of alcohol and/or prescription drugs can affect both the cognitive and physical abilities of older adults, and significantly erode their ability to function safely at home.  In a study conducted by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, nearly one fourth of adults over 65 consumed alcohol 21 to 31 days per month, by far the highest consuming segment of the overall adult population.  The likelihood that many seniors combine alcohol with medication is an alarming safety concern:  the typical older adult over 65 now takes four prescription and two over-the-counter drugs routinely.  Therefore, drugs and alcohol are bound to be combined in this segment of the population more often than in any other demographic.  Combined affects of drugs and even moderate amounts of alcohol would certainly increase risk of fire injury and death among older adults.



            Living conditions contribute to the fire safety of our oldest citizens.  Only 4.5% of our senior population live in nursing homes.  Most of the older adults live in individual residences where fire safety-related materials and procedures are not subject to outside authority, as they are in institutional settings.  Nursing homes are required to meet specific health and building codes, and to be inspected for compliance regularly.  Homes are subject to residential building construction codes, but inspection and enforcement of these codes after building occupation is practically non-existent.  As a result, older Americans at greatest risk of fire-related injury or death are probably those who live independently and must engage in certain activities in daily life that put them in contact with heat and/or flame.  This conclusion is supported with data collected by the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) which documents the activity of fire victims at the time of injury or death.


            According to NFIRS, older adults were most likely to have been sleeping at the time of fire fatality (39%), while 33% were killed while escaping a residential structure fire. The oldest old are most often killed while attempting to escape a home, rather than while sleeping.


            Most fire fatalities among older adults were caused by smoking, open flame, heating, and suspicious acts, in that order. Cooking, open flame, smoking, and heating caused more house fires that resulted in injuries than any other fire cause.


            Many health and human service organizations prepare guidelines and work to increase fire-safety awareness among the elderly and their caregivers.  In 2005, the U. S. Department of Homeland Security launched a national campaign to address the growing fire-risk among the elderly.  Such educational efforts focus on preventive measures such as installation of smoke alarms, implementation of evacuation plans, and safe heating and cooking practices.  Publications produced by most of these organizations generally refer to the need for the elderly to be cautious when cooking, and to avoid wearing loose garments around fire or flame.  Some very reputable organizations even recommend that the elderly wear "non-flammable" clothing.  This would be an extremely difficult guideline to follow, however, as such apparel is essentially non-existent.


            Fabric flammability was first addressed by the federal government in the Flammable Fabrics Act of 1953.  This legislation was initiated after numerous fire accidents occurred in the early 1950's, many of which involved trendy long-pile rayon sweaters (nicknamed "torch sweaters"), or highly flammable cowboy chaps popular with children at that time.  The purpose of the Flammable Fabrics Act was to reduce the danger of injury and loss of life by providing national standard methods of testing and rating the flammability of textiles used in clothing.  The standards established in the Flammable Fabrics Act are still in effect today and administered by the Consumer Products Safety Commission.  The standard measures two fabric characteristics:  ease of ignition and speed of flame spread.  In the standard test a fabric sample is exposed to a one second ignition.  If the sample ignites, flame spread (the time needed to burn five inches in length) is recorded.  Three classifications of flammability were established in the Act.  Class 1 (Normal Flammability) is least flammable, taking more than four seconds to ignite.  Class 2 (Intermediate Flammability) requires 4 to 7 seconds to ignite and the base fabric ignites in cases where the fabric has a raised surface or nap.  Class 3 (Rapid, Intense Burning) ignites in less than 4 seconds, and is deemed dangerously flammable and unsuitable for clothing.  Garments made of such unsafe fabrics could be recalled, and the manufacturer would be fined for regulatory non-compliance.


            For many years textile manufacturers have looked for ways to reduce a fabric's inherent flammability.  Fibers have been developed that are "flame resistant" which means that a fabric made of these fibers will resist ignition, and may self-extinguish if ignited.  Flame resistant fabrics give wearers a little bit more time to react to a fire emergency.  Flame retardants, chemical substances applied to the fabric to impart flame resistance, have also been developed.  It is important to note that most flame resistant fabrics will still burn, they just will take somewhat longer to ignite, and will burn more slowly.  The best flame resistant fabrics will almost immediately self-extinguish when removed from the source of the flame.


            The very best flame resistant fabrics are generally expensive.  For example, Dale Antiflame®, a line of 100% cotton fabrics treated with a high tech flame retardant, cost about 130% more than common polyester cotton knit blends.  Such highly effective flame retardant textiles are only used in industrial applications to provide safe work clothes for laborers who work in fire risky environments.  Some fibers such as modacrylic have been available for years, but are currently underutilized in everyday apparel applications.  Modacrylic fibers have many desirable characteristics and can be satisfactorily used in many clothing applications, but are not widely produced right now.  An increased demand for lower flammability garments might change that manufacturing dynamic, but the consumer would have to be willing to pay somewhat more for a modacrylic, low flammability sweater.


            The Consumer Products Safety Commission has made it necessary for manufacturers to label the fiber content of all clothing, along with care guidelines.  Perhaps one of the greatest impacts of the Flammable Fabrics Act was upon the manufacture of children's sleepwear.  Part 1615 and 1616 of the act stipulate that fabrics used to manufacture sleepwear for children up to age 14 (pajamas, nightgowns, and robes) must pass more rigorous flammability tests than ordinary apparel.  Garments marketed as sleepwear for children up to age 14 must be flame resistant.  Garments that might be confused for sleepwear must state that they are not flame resistant, not intended to be used as sleepwear, and should be worn tight-fitting.  Children's sleepwear is practically the only application of flame resistant treatments in everyday apparel worn by any segment of the population.  In fact, flame resistant materials commonly stocked in fabric stores are almost exclusively designed for nursery application.  Most have infantile prints that would never be used for garments worn by any other age group.  It is interesting to note that the elderly are at greater risk of fire injury than children, both when asleep and when awake, yet their need for flame resistant clothing has not been addressed by the Flammable Fabrics Act.


            Where fabric flammability is concerned the Consumer Products Safety Commission advises "Let the buyer beware."  Fabrics vary in flammability greatly based upon many factors.  The way a fabric burns depends partly on its fiber content.  Among the least safe materials are natural cellulosic fibers like cotton and linen which burn quickly with a hot, vigorous flame.  Manufactured cellulose fibers like rayon and acetate can also burn very quickly, but may shrink up and become tighter to the body.  Acetate burns with a rapid flame and melts when burning.   Melted areas may drip and harden into a molten plastic that is difficult to remove from any surface.  Synthetic acrylic fibers burn similarly to acetate, except that they burn with a very heavy dense black smoke, and drip excessively.  Synthetic fibers nylon, lastol, olefin, polyester and spandex are less flammable; they burn slowly and melt while burning and they may pull away from small flames without igniting.  The drip-off is not as extensive as that of acetate and acrylic, but is still molten, hot and difficult to remove.  These synthetics may self-extinguish.


            Protein fibers such as wool and silk are of lower flammability; they burn slowly and are difficult to ignite, especially when used in heavy weight winter garments.  Wool and silk may self-extinguish.  It must be noted that silk may be rendered highly flammable by dyes that are used for coloration.  Among the safest fibers used in apparel are modacrylic and saran which burn very slowly with melting, and may pull away from flame without igniting.  These fibers are quite flame resistant and frequently self-extinguish.  Aramid, novoloid and vinyon are flame proof fibers used in industrial applications and for safety uniforms.  They char and do not burn.  No flame-proof fibers are currently used in ordinary wearing apparel.


            Fabric construction also affects flammability.  Lacey, gauzy materials with open weave that allow oxygen to be present over a wide surface area are more likely to ignite and burn rapidly.  Conversely, heavy, close weave structures ignite with difficulty and burn more slowly.  In general, light weight clothing is more likely to catch fire than winter weight fabrics.  However, heavy weight fabrics burn longer when ignited because there is a greater volume of fibers present for combustion.  Fabrics with napped or brushed surfaces like velvet, terry cloth or chenille may catch fire easily because of the greater amount of fiber surface exposed to oxygen in the air.


            Garment construction also contributes to clothing flammability.  Close-fitting garments are less likely to come in contact with a source of ignition.  Loose, flowing apparel may hang from the body and brush across a cooking flame, so cooking should ideally be done while wearing a short sleeved shirt.  Unfortunately, it is often difficult for older people to dress in tight-fitting clothes due to reduced mobility and flexibility.  For this reason, senior citizens must be particularly careful around wood stoves, space heaters and cooking appliances, and should select clothing that is constructed of tightly woven, lower flammability fibers.


            Our nation is aging.  In 2000 people 65 and older comprised 12 percent of  America's population.  By 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the proportion of older Americans will rise to 16 percent, and that by 2050, there will be more than 86 million older Americans, comprising 21% of the nation's population.  The oldest of the old are the fastest growing segment of the aged population.  By 2050 it is estimated that there will be 20 million adults over the age of 85 years.  Since it has been shown that older citizens are 2.5 times more likely to die in a fire today, this demographic phenomenon called the "graying of America" can only result in increased fire risk among the elderly. 


            There are certain limitations we face when trying to address fire safety among the elderly.  The physical and mental challenges many older people face make some fire safety recommendations almost absurd.  Try telling an 86 year old man suffering from arthritis to "stop, drop and roll."  Factors such as fabric flammability that can be manipulated and improved with technological development and consumer awareness must be exploited to their very best advantage.  The Consumer Products Safety Commission should probably revisit the Flammable Fabrics Act of 1953, and update it for our much older millennium population.


            I hope to see someday soon a special line of apparel developed for older people that features garments that are easy to wear, and flame resistant.  In the meantime, I have decided to test fabrics that are commonly used in shirts, blouses, trousers, slacks, jackets and sweaters to determine just how flammable our typical everyday wear is.  I hope to identify the least dangerous fabrics from among these inherently dangerous choices.


Works Cited


"Fire and the Older Adult."  January 2006.  United States Fire Administration/National Fire Data Center.                       53 pp.  United States Department of Homeland Security.  20 March 2006.                                                < http://www.fldfs.com/SFM/pdf/USFA_Fire&Elderly_2006-01.pdf>


"Fire Safety Facts For People 50-Plus".  2005.  United States Fire Administration.                                                        20 March 2006.  < http://www.usfa.fema.gov/50plus/materials/HS_FACT_eng508.pdf>


"Flammable Fabrics".  Pasadena Fire Department.                                                                                                         27 February 2006.  <http://www.ci.pasadena.ca.us/fire/flammable.asp>


Holland, Micah.  "What's the Story Behind These Fibers Called Modacrylics?"  The Costume Gallery:   Textile Reference Manual. 2002.  <http://www.costumegallery.com/Textiles/modacrylics.htm>


"Industry Update Vol. VIII".  Bulwark Protective Apparel.                                                                                            27 February 2006.  <http://www.bulwark.com/media.asp?SID=3&UKEY=63202>


Katz, Colleen.  Fortress, Fred.  Stein, Joseph C.  Wach, Margaret.  Lully, William.                                           The Encyclopedia of Textiles.  Doric Publishing Company, 1980.


Robinson, Stella.  Textiles.  New York:  The Bookwright Press, 1984.


"SEF Modacrylic Self-Extinguishing Fiber.".  Solutia, Inc.  20 March 2006                                                                    < http://www.fabriclink.com/HF/SEF/home.html>


Stone, Jan and Sara Kadolph. "Facts About Fabric Flammability".  North Central Regional Extension    Publication  174 ( July 2003): 7pp.  Iowa State University.  02 February 2006.                             <http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/NCR174.pdf>


Tideiksaar, Rein, Ph.D.  "Safety of the Elderly."  08 March 1984.  The New York Times.  02 February 2006.  < http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990CE2D81539F93BA35750C0A962948260>