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Do FSC Cigarettes Still Cause Fires?

Hello and welcome to episode two of "Dehaan On Fire" brought to you by FireWise Learning Academy. In today's discussion with Dr. Dehaan, we're looking at a very provocative and controversial question: "Do cigarettes still cause fires?" Viewer and listener discretion is advised.

To read the transcript of this video, scroll down past the video or click here!

YouTube Video:


- Welcome back to your channel Dr.Dehaan, it's great to be back with you and today we're gonna tackle the first topic on this channel and this is a really interesting one that I was not aware of and it's a really provocative question that is out there right now and you've got a lot of good evidence and some facts to give us. Do cigarettes still cause fires? What's the whole premise or what's the whole origin of this question being asked now?

- Well proper fire investigation, whether it's a structural fire or accidental fire on a dressed person, or a wildland fire, one of the challenges is the investigator has to create a list of potential ignition sources that need to be examined and excluded and with the intent hopefully of getting down to the point where you know there's one potential cause for this fire that I can't eliminate and it does have the capacity to start a fire in this material. And so that's really a critical feature of modern, what they now call Scientific Fire Investigation, is to create that list and test all of those possible sources of ignition. And that's where we run into problems because everyone for decades has included cigarettes, tobacco cigarettes as a potential igniter of fires, whether it's wildland fires or structural fires, bedding fires, clothing or whatever, because they were in such common use and they do represent a heat source and people you know know that if they come in contact with the right kind of fuel, yeah they can ignite. Well so you know cigarettes was always considered one of your possible sources of ignition and you needed this investigator to examine that possibility. And things have changed in the last few years. The American government and most of the EU countries have passed legislation mandating that what in America is sometimes referred to as Fire Safe Cigarettes and even that is a misnomer. Fire safe cigarettes would indicate to the consumer, oh this means these cigarettes can't start fires. Well the FSC printed on the package of cigarettes doesn't stand for Fire Safe Cigarettes, that's how the vernacular is used. FSC actually stands for Federal Standard Client, so really all that FSC means is that these cigarettes have been tested according to a reproducible laboratory grade ignition test and have met the standard for failure to ignite the substrate in which they're in contact or as they're intended to if they actually self extinguish before they burn to completion.

- Now that's an interesting test because the issue is well, if the cigarette can start a fire before it burns it's full length, why do we care whether it burns to full length or not? But this was a engineering solution or an engineering solution was offered by the cigarette manufacturers. Hey how about if we change the porosity of the paper of the cigarette and then we put ventilation holes in so that if the cigarette burns part way down, it kinda loses momentum and is in very small fire a glowing cigarette sorry, a smoldering cigarette is a five watt fire. Which is a very small quantity, a paper match by comparison is a 50 watt fire. And so a five watt fire, well, you got the right fuel and the right exposure, yeah, it can start a suitable susceptible fuel on to the road to ignition. So that was part of it and so the test is actually, it was created by extensive laboratory testing through Nistum and things like that to get a federal standard sorry, a standardized test and it looks good from a scientific standpoint because your test target is a stack of filter papers, laboratory filter papers. Well, that sounds good, paper is ignitable but then you realize that those filter papers are pure cellulose. Cellulose it's self is what? 90 or 80% of paper and cardboard and things like that it consist of of, but it isn't terribly ignitable. Pure cellulose doesn't really ignite very well or burn very well. So you think, well, okay but this is reproducible so we'll give it that. So the cigarette is lit, placed on top of a stack of these, and then there's a shroud like a bell jar or something like that placed around it to keep random air currents from affecting it because a smoldering fire especially a small one like this five watt cigarette is very susceptible to the influence of a gust of wind or a breeze changing the dynamics of the combustion to the point where it's kind of a different animal. So okay, you put this on and then you time the duration of the burn and as I said, its supposed to self extinguish before it reaches a certain point and then you're supposed to look at the burn, the stack of filter papers and see if that has actually been ignited. Well okay, oh and then there's a fail standard for a cigarette type to be approved by this method. You can have up to 20% failures. In other words they burn to full length or they actually scorch the cellulose underlay and things like that but that's a pretty wide margin, 20% failures and you could still pass.

- So 20% of people who fall asleep under a bell container on top of a stack of filter paper and drop their cigarette are still going to have an issue?

- They still are running a risk that's right yep. And so, you go well okay, we've addressed the problem. Now being the cynic that I am I thought, that's odd, why would the cigarette companies agree to this kind of test standard knowing that one of the things they count on is if you take a drag on a cigarette and put it down and forget it, it burns completely up and if you wanna continue smoking, you're gonna have to light another cigarette. So it's in their interest to have the cigarette continue to burn. Why would they agree to this? Well, then you realize the specifics of the test like the cellulose target and the absence of a full-length burn and things like that and you say okay. Now what is really interesting is that in Europe, the EU standards, they are not referred to as Fire Safe Cigarettes, they are Reduced Ignition Propensity Cigarettes.

- So there's an acronym for you.

- Technically you know that's a pretty fair description, Reduced Ignition Propensity but yes, then you realize what the acronym for that is R.I.P. and needless to say, cigarette companies don't want a big R.I.P. symbol on each of their cigarette packs. So they tend to kind of soft-shoe that. I've done some limited scale testing as part of displays in lectures for fire investigators at various venues around the country and actually overseas and cigarettes can reliably start fires, a fair percentage of the time in ordinary combustibles especially tissue paper and kleenex and paper towels. Interestingly enough cigarettes or discarded cigarettes are always the first thing wildland fires investigators look for and justifiably so. I mean they can start it but if you actually go out and try to start a fire with a cigarette under typical wildland fire conditions, it's very much a long shot. I mean you'd have to put in about 100 cigarettes before you actually get one to ignite the dry grass even under ideal conditions and stuff like that. But you do have to consider it 'cause once in 100 is you know still a possibility considering how many stupid people still throw their cigarette butts outta the windows of passing cars and things like that. So, okay, but where does that leave us as fire investigators? Well, a good fire investigator is gonna realize that, hey, cigarettes should not be eliminated from my list of suspects. But I've had investigators argue, I don't even consider cigarettes anymore because they're all fire safe since what was it, five years ago, all the cigarettes sold in the U.S are supposedly F.S.E complaint and so I don't even consider it. I've had lawyers argue that we don't consider cigarettes a possible ignition source anymore because they're guaranteed by our government to be you know fire safe. Oh god, there's a gap. So we show the videos and stuff like that, but that's just me and some colleagues showing that hey, even these F.S.E cigarettes can start fires under the right conditions and you need to consider that a possibility. Well, four or five years ago I was in a fire science, fire engineering conference in San Francisco, and one of the speakers got the biggest amount of attention because she was from the consumer product safety commission, CPSC, and she introduces her topic she says, "I'm looking at ignition of bedding materials by cigarettes" and you could hear this murmur through the audience going why you doing this and she said, "well, we can't, we're CPSC, we can't control cigarettes "but we can control the interaction of cigarettes "with consumer products like cotton bed clothes "and cotton mattress toppers, "and actual cotton bed linens" and she said "so we decided to test whether these cigarettes are really safe or not". They did an incredibly thorough examination. They tested dozens of different types of cigarettes both pre-F.S.C and current production ones and then they picked a number of the cigarettes by brand based on whether they were susceptible to or they could start fires frequently or they couldn't, so they covered that whole you know theoretical range. They didn't just pick the worst ones, they picked representatives from all three categories of risk and then they tested it under real world conditions of bed linens, cotton mattress toppers, and cotton blankets and then tested with that same protocol against the Fire Safe Cigarettes, the current production ones. And they discovered in thousands of tests, there was no statistical difference between the two groups. So a F.S.C grade makes absolutely no difference in a real world fuel. Yes they will pass this laboratory test, but that doesn't effect how much they are still a hazard to the public.

- So we have to you know treat these things as a potential cause. As fire investigators, we can't just arbitrarily eliminate modern current production cigarettes. Unfortunately of course this really riled the people like the National Fire Protection Association and some other consumer groups that were really pushing this and NFPA made some pretty outrageous claims after this legislation was put into effect, and they were claiming that there was already a drop in fire deaths as a result of cigarette ignition fires, and things like that and that was regrettable. And I've been in positions to challenge the NFPAs statistics a number of times. I'm no longer on their Christmas card list, lets put it that way.

- Now if I remember correctly, a fire death was, if the person died on the scene but if they died later, was that counted as a fire death?

- Oh yeah that's the kind of statistical stuff you run into because even gathering general statistics on fire cause and fire deaths, you run into exactly that. If in some large city agencies, if the person is found dead in the fire, they are considered or after the fire in the building, they are considered a fire death. But if they are removed either responsive or non responsive or burned to any serious extent that they're no longer alive, that's a rescue and so its not a fire death. And some colleagues of mine have been really shocked when they see these headlines from the fire departments saying there's only been three fire deaths in our city since the first of the year or something like that, and they go, well, wait a minute, you had five dead in one fire three months ago. What happened to them? Well they're just statistically invalidated. So yeah, so even the process of deciding who's a fire death. I'm currently looking at a case where the two people living in this house were both committed smokers, they slept in separate bedrooms, and in the middle of the night, one of the individuals awoke, smelled smoke, saw smoke, saw flame coming through the wall into the spouse's bedroom an he called 911 and reported it and said you know, it's in her room and there's flames coming through the wall, I'm gonna go see, and doesn't hang up the phone, he just puts in on the counter and the dispatcher can hear him walking away from the phone presumably towards the seat of the fire and can hear him coughing. Well, fire department gets there pretty quickly, it was kind of a remote area, and the bedroom where she was was engulfed in a post flash over fire. She is eventually found very badly burned, actually burned through the floor of the bedroom, and he was found nonresponsive at the other end of the house and it was second degree burns and not a lot of fire damage. So now the issue is well, who died first? Well 'cause of some inheritance issue. And so I said yeah, I'd look at it 'cause there really isn't anybody else who understands the fire dynamics of a smoldering fire and what happens to the smoke and the CO that its generating. Smoldering fires of course have the highest by a factor of 10 or 100, a highest output of carbon monoxide because it's a smoldering fire and that's traditionally what produces the highest carbon monoxide levels of any kind of combustion. And so, I looked at it and offered an opinion and I'm now waiting to hear from the court as to what my opinion is gonna matter to their proceedings.

- So the cause in that case was a cigarette, its just who perished first?

- Investigator that responded I think did a first class job. He knew about the history both of the individuals who were committed smokers. One spouse would go through three you know, a couple of cartons a day on occasion. But the other critical factor here is, the bed's completely burned, she's found out of the bed but nearby and found in the remains under the bed is the oxygen generator that she used because she had chronic lung problems and so she would use a mask and oxygen generator in the bed with her. Now that poses another high risk thing, because if you take a smoldering cigarette and expose it to 100% oxygen, like coming out of an oxygen tank or even a lesser oxygen concentration out of a oxygen generator, you enhance the oxygen content being entrained in the cigarette to the point where, it doesn't necessarily smolder anymore, it bursts into flame which means it's a heck of a lot more likely to ignite bedding and clothing and things like that in the vicinity. And there have been a number of cases like that observed in hospitals for instance or care homes, where the individual is smoking a cigarette and they refuse to give up the cigarette, and they'll smoke for a while and then take a draft from the oxygen thing so they feel better, and eventually they get them mixed up or come in contact with each other and the cigarette now becomes a little flame in their hands and gets dropped into the bedding or the clothing with fatal results.

- So the take away is, cigarettes still cause fires, and investigators, lawyers, manufacturers, and people who god forbid might think, oh cigarettes don't cause fires, now I can watch TV and fall asleep while I enjoy a cigarette in bed, they still cause fires and don't do it.

- That's exactly right, yep. And you have to listen to the people who have actually done the real world testing with cigarettes and other similar low energy ignition sources to see the results that actually they can actually start fires despite the label on the carton or on the pack.

- And that's an important reminder that part of the role of investigating a fire and determining the cause isn't just to solve the mystery or who is at fault, but it's also to protect life and prevent future things from happening. And there's a scientific method that's going to find that more that coming at things with a bias or because you've heard something or you have an investment somewhere.

- Well, that's exactly right. I mean the whole reason we investigate fires is to prevent further deaths or injuries or property damage from that cause in the future. And that's why we know high rick events or actions that if we stop doing that or stop using that product or whatever, then we can reduce the loss of life or the injury rate.

- Well, thanks for that information, for sharing it with us and for the work that you're doing to get that out and of course others that are looking at the same thing. I look foreword to getting together in the next episode. Who knows what the next topic will be!

- Well, my pleasure. I appreciate the exposure for this issue.

- Thanks for tuning in to "Dehaan on Fire". If you have any questions for Dr. Dehaan or comments about this channel, please leave them in the comments section below. And if you haven't subscribed, please do so, ring the bell for notifications of new uploads and don't forget to set your devices to receive those updates. Until next time, I'm Tim Davis for "Dehaan on Fire" brought to you by Firewise Learning Academy.