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Flammability: is it an issue?

storage of nonwovens, particularly highloft materials, has raised concern for nonwovens producers and premiums with insurance companies; are test methods inaccurate or is this a non-issue?

Flame retardant. Fire resistant. Non-flammable. Words the average consumer looks for on children's pajamas more than anywhere else. Yet in the nonwovens industry the issue has grown in awareness at the warehouse storage level, before the consumer ever comes into contact with the materials. This issue of flammability hovers on the brink of the industry's consciousness, with conflicting opinions about its importance to and impact on nonwoven roll goods producers and fiber suppliers.

The issue first surfaced in the late 1980's when Factory Mutual Research Corporation, Norwood, MA, the research arm of three major industrial insurance underwiters - Factory Mutual Group, Industrial Risk Insurers and the Kemper Group - released a summary of results on a series of fire tests it had conducted. The company researches insurance risks and publishes recommendations for its insured customers, which are almost exclusively industrial types of businesses and include up to 50% of the Fortune 500 companies.

Factory Mutual did this broad series of testing on various nonwoven materials from 1987-1989 at its full scale test facility in Rhode Island. According to findings released from these tests, "nonwovens, and highloft nonwovens in particular, present a much greater challenge to sprinkler systems." This resulted in very stringent guidelines or higher insurance rates for certain companies that store nonwoven materials. Factory Mutual's guidelines, according to Joseph Hankins, Jr., manager-protection section at the company, include placing materials in a "one-hour rated cutoff area (which would resist fire for an hour) with a ceiling, putting material in a low cost building or trailer, putting it in small piles of 500 sq feet. separated by 20 feet or limiting the storage height to 10 feet with ceiling protection and sprinklers."

Speaking at the INDA Highloft Conference last May, Mr. Hankins said, "None of these alternatives is particularly attractive, but since sprinklers have no real affect, we can only hope to minimize the damage."

The controversy has arisen for several reasons. Firstly, while Factory Mutual's test does differentiate between highloft and low loft (conventional) nonwovens, it does not break down various "non-highloft" materials. "We don't have the data to differentiate between technologies," said Mr. Hankins in a recent interview. "We don't claim to have tested other materials. but we simply cannot test every possibility. We must do the tests based on the material we can buy or what is donated to us." he said. "We have been criticized for setting standards without determining the scope of the individual materials," Mr. Hankins continued. "Given the position we are in, however, we must provide some guidance based on the problems we have encountered."

While Factory Mutual has stated it is willing to do additional tests on nonwovens, the reality is that the expense involved with the test and the amount of materials needed is not practical, especially for smaller nonwovens companies. And as of yet, no one has developed a workable small scale test that determines large scale performance.

In one example of how the Factory Mutual recommendations have impacted a smaller nonwovens manufacturer, Filtran, Newman, GA, a manufacturer of automotive transmission filters for automotive OEM's and the automotive aftermarket, has had its insurance premiums raised because of the guidelines. Fred Williams, business unit manager, explained that during the last policy renewal Filtran was deemed a plastics company rather than a processing plant and must now pay much higher insurance premiums than other manufacturing plants of its size. "Factory Mutual is willing to reclassify your materials if you want to retest," said Mr. Williams, "but the test is very expensive and the amount of material that must be provided for the test also adds to the cost."

As a result Filtran will be forced to move to an outside storage facility to reduce the rate. "The sprinkler requirements are absolutely incredible," said Mr. Williams. "We're better off with an outside building that is disposable."

The problem, explained Neil Cunningham, manager of health, environment and safety, Fiberweb North America, Greenville, SC, is attempting to take sparse data and make a wider extrapolation. As the scope broadens, this becomes difficult. "To say because a handful of nonwovens burns this way, all will burn this way is simply not true," said Mr. Cunningham. "More tests need to be done."

Mr. Cunningham, who is on INDA's Health and Safety Committee, which has been dealing with this issue, had been involved with the old flammability committee in the disposables association in the late 60's. "In the past 20 years nonwovens have come a long way," he said. "Twenty years ago, storage of nonwovens was treated like paper; the manufacture of nonwovens at that time was mostly cellulose based and bonded, usually with latex. We've come a long way from that; the nonwovens of today are largely derived from beads (polymers) in much the same way as plastic."

Connected to the lack of conclusive test data is also the issue of realistic test methods. Several companies have argued that nonwovens are not stored in the way that they were in the Factory Mutual test and that there have been no major fires in nonwovens facilities. Robert Averell, applications manager-nonwovens, Hoechst Celanese, Charlotte, NC, commented, "Factory Mutual says if you want fire insurance with us, you must do it our way. But in their test, they used a very severe method of stacking rolls and this caused a chimney effect. The nonwovens industry does not normally store materials under the same conditions," he said.

Nonwovens companies are also disputing whether there is the incidence of fire that Factory Mutual claims. "It's hard to refute what you see on the video [a video highlighting what happens when nonwovens burn, produced by Factory Mutual last year], but there is a gray area, said Mr. Averell.

Others have protested that fires would not start as they are ignite in the Factory Mutual test and that nonwoven materials, while they will burn readily, are not easily ignitable. However, "Once it's burning, it's irrelevant how it started," said Michael Newman, manager of loss prevention at Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, NJ. "We had a fire at our Arkansas plant some years ago and we saw how quickly it burned."

Mr. Williams of Filtran also argued the point that the materials do not ignite. However, he also said, "Factory Mutual's position is to assume there is already a fire. Given that, it will burn."

"You can argue back and forth on this," said Mr. Averell. "But what it comes down to is if the material ignites, it will burn and outrace the fire extinguishment system. The test may have been done under severe conditions but this fact is true."

Ironically, one advantage to nonwovens, particularly highloft materials, is that they do burn quickly, possibly salvaging the building and surrounding materials if the blaze can be contained.

The problem remains contained primarily to nonwoven roll goods producers, although customers have asked about the liabilities. However, as Charles Bushmer, president of Buffalo Batt & Felt, Depew, NY, pointed out, "With today's concentration on Just-in-Time delivery, customers are only storing product temporarily." Finished products must deal with different standards and different issues.

Technically there are answers but whether these answers are practical or will become practical remains to be seen. The consensus is that the guidelines need more input from industry and the science behind the guidelines needs further scrutiny. Also, "There should be other tests done," said Fiberweb's Mr. Cunningham. "I'd like to see other institutions - not just Factory Mutual - doing tests and establishing a uniform set of conclusions."

Obviously, another technical answer comes from fiber suppliers who can provide flame retardant fibers to roll goods manufacturers. However, suppliers say this is not the answer, at least not at this time. We are working on improving the flammability characteristics of our products for nonwovens, especially fiberfill," said Robert Slavin, business manager, worldwide fiberfill, DuPont, Wilmington, DE. "However, the cost of such fibers makes them too expensive for manufacturers today. This circumstance is expected to exist until legislative changes force the issue."

Fiber producers are also working on fibers that not only will not contribute to combustion but will actually extinguish flame sources. To date, however, such a fiber is not available from any fiber producer.

Mr. Averell of Hoechst Celanese agreed. "I can give you technical rather than practical answers," he said. "You can change the burning characteristics by using thermal bonds and by using flame retardant polyester but nonwovens manufacturers, especially highloft manufacturers, will never consider this because of the cost."

Is the issue blown out of proportion? Some say so, while others who have been adversely affected by increased insurance premiums and the threat of having to retrofit warehouses with new structures and sprinkler systems do not believe so.

The impact on the industry depends on the insurance carrier, said Mr. Cunningham. "The insurance industry as a whole has a great deal of influence. Some companies may be adversely affected because of their insurance carrier, while other carriers may not be as strict. There's going to be a string of change throughout the industry."

One point Mr. Cunningham stressed was that the information that Factory Mutual generated is more far-reaching than that company believes. "Factory Mutual has been very close with its data and has not published complete test results, only a summary. This can be misconstrued. In this kind of situation," said Mr. Cunningham, "word gets around the industry fast and affects other carriers as well. The danger is that the information may be distorted by the time it reaches others."

Where To From Here? Steps For The Future

The flammability issue comes up for review at Factory Mutual every five years; the current standard was enacted in October, 1991. Due to the controversy, industry proponents of changing the guidelines hope that Factory Mutual will consider revising the standard. The enforcement of the standard also varies from insurance agent to insurance agent as well as insurance carrier to insurance carrier.

One possible scenario is that a new test standard will be introduced by the time the test data is up for renewal. INDA, through its Health & Safety Committee, has been working with Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, TX, to develop a new set of guidelines for storing nonwoven materials. The program will include a series of tests similar to those performed by Factory Mutual with the objective of "evaluating the potential hazards of a fire involving nonwoven roll goods in a warehouse facility and developing an adequate safe storage solution."

Where To From Here? Steps For The Future

The flammability issue comes up for review at Factory Mutual every five years; the current standard was enacted in October, 1991. Due to the controversy, industry proponents of changing the guidelines hope that Factory Mutual will consider revising the standard. The enforcement of the standard also varies from insurance agent to insurance agent as well as insurance carrier to insurance carrier.

One possible scenario is that a new test standard will be introduced by the time the test data is up for renewal. INDA, through its Health & Safety Committee, has been working with Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, TX, to develop a new set of guidelines for storing nonwoven materials. The program will include a series of tests similar to those performed by Factory Mutual with the objective of "evaluating the potential hazards of a fire involving nonwoven a roll goods in a warehouse facility and developing an adequate safe storage solution."

INDA is currently in the process of deciding what materials it will test and also working with its members to justify funding for the project; the initial testing is expected to begin within the next few months. "We are still in the set-up stage," said Art Parker, Department of Fire Technology at Southwest Research Institute. "But we hope to do a large number of fire tests and build a test standard from that data base." The test program will also look at individual types of non-wovens separately to more accurately reflect true fire hazards..

The tests would take approximately 3-4 months, with the development of the standard taking up to six months, explained Mr. Parker. The standard will be "applicable to the majority of nonwovens manufacturers," he said, and would then be submitted to the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) for approval, with the goal for having the tests adopted it as official test methods. Factory Mutual has also been invited to submit its methods to ASTM so they can become consensus, rather than proprietary, standards.

Mr. Parker commented on the nonwovens industry. "The nonwovens industry seems interested and concerned about this problem," he said. "May are not happy with the results of the Factory Mutual test and about how the materials were grouped in the test. There is a deep concern in the industry about this issue and about the proper solution. The industry is attacking strongly and with urgency," said Mr. Parker.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; nonwoven fabrics
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:2173
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