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Chemical companies in row over EU's planned fire test that may expose dangers

Cable firms in row over EU's planned fire test

Thu Oct 21, 2004 11:48 AM ET

BRUSSELS, Oct 21 (Reuters) - A European Commission plan to test the acidic gases given off by cables when they burn has sparked bitter opposition from cable manufacturers, who say the scheme is misguided and could make fires more dangerous.

How fast communications cables burn and what gases they give off can help determine how fast a fire spreads through a modern office block and how lethal it is.

A Commission committee is set to decide on Oct. 26 whether to introduce a new fire safety test that would measure the acidity of cables burning at 950 degrees Celsius.

But the Cable Fire Research Association (a commercially-driven chemical manufacturers industry body) said it would make more sense to consider how cables burn at lower temperatures, when people still have a chance of escape, and to examine the toxic gases produced rather than acidity. This organization does not want the materials tested for incapacitation factor associated with Hydrofluoric Acid and the gases given off by fluorine materials under heat decomposition.

A Commission spokesman did not return requests for comment.

"The acidity test is a 30-year-old procedure designed to test the safety of equipment, not people, (and) its inclusion will compromise safety and lives in the event of a fire," the association said in a statement. "Fire resistance should be the focus of the debate," it added.

At 950 degrees, survival is impossible because a 'flashover' point has been reached, at which the heat is enough to ignite all surrounding flammable material, the association said.

The test also does not examine how much carbon monoxide and other lethal gases are given off by burning cables, the association said, adding that acidity is more damaging to electrical equipment than to people.

But fire expert Ed Galea, director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at Britain's Greenwich University, said acidity was important and should be tested.

"While exposure to acid gases from a fire may not necessarily be the direct cause of some fire fatalities, it can adversely impact your chances of survival," Galea told Reuters.

"It would make sense to do a series of tests over a range of temperatures."

Galea said testing at high temperatures was also necessary because in a fire, harmful gases could quickly spread from the flashover areas to other, less hot areas and make escape more difficult.

The association's 10 members include materials, wire and cable manufacturers such as Brand-Rex, a unit of Britain's Novar Plc (NVR.L: Quote, Profile, Research) , Total's (TOTF.PA: Quote, Profile, Research) chemical unit Atofina, Dupont Europe (DD.N: Quote, Profile, Research) , 3M Co. (MMM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Solvay (SOLBt.BR: Quote, Profile, Research).

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