Byline: Carol Emert

WASHINGTON — The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which dropped a proposal to regulate adult sleepwear six years ago, is once again considering action. And the prospect is making business edgy.
Specifically, the commission is weighing how to prevent the deaths of about 140 elderly Americans who die each year after their clothing catches fire.
“It’s entirely possible that we may need to look at the flammability of sleepwear, but it’s also entirely possible there’s a better fix, such as an information campaign for the elderly … or changing the way some appliances [such as stoves and heaters] perform,” a CPSC spokeswoman said.
According to the CPSC, people over age 65 account for about 75 percent of the Americans who die in clothing-related fires each year.
However, details on what causes the deaths, and the role of apparel in particular, remains sketchy. A commission review of death certificates, news clips and medical examiners’ reports over the period 1990 to 1994 found that the type of clothing people were wearing in these fires is known in only 35 percent of the cases. Of those, 52 percent were wearing nightgowns, pajamas or robes.
The CPSC is now collecting additional data and expects to release a report in about a week, according to the spokeswoman.
Retailers and manufacturers are concerned about the CPSC action because there is no separate sleepwear category for elderly people, so any regulatory efforts could be directed at all adult sleepwear, which comprises about 12 percent of the adult apparel market, according to Myron Meche, a legislative representative with the National Retail Federation.
Federal regulations on childrens’ sleepwear already are so stringent they effectively prevent the use of cotton, which is highly flammable. However, Meche said he does not believe the CPSC would attempt to regulate all adult sleepwear.
“The CPSC’s function is to look at reasonable risk, and this goes beyond that,” Meche said. “Statistics show that actual [clothing fire] fatalities have decreased 59 percent for senior citizens over the past 10 years while the population of elderly has been increasing…. And the statistics don’t show any reason to regulate all adult sleepwear.”
Larry Martin, president of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, concurred. “I don’t think the government wants to tell American women they can’t wear cotton nightgowns,” he said.
CPSC Chairman Ann Brown held a meeting with 21 industry representatives last month to discuss the issue. Participants included the NRF, the AAMA, the American Textile Manufacturers Association, the International Mass Retail Association, Kmart, Sears Roebuck & Co., Lanz Inc., Hoechst Celanese and Vanity Fair.
At the meeting, retailers and manufacturers criticized a two-page “hazard sketch” prepared by the commission outlining the sleepwear mortality problem. Specifically, the fact that nightwear was involved in only about half of the cases where apparel was specified indicates that the problem might lie in other areas, such as smoking in bed or poorly designed stoves or space heaters, participants said.
“The data presented at the meeting was so full of holes it was awful difficult to ascertain what the problem was, so we could know what we could do to help, or what we couldn’t do,” said Karl M. Lazenby, director of fabric manufacturing for Vanity Fair, Monroeville, Ala.
The report now being put together will look at some of those questions, the commission spokeswoman said.
The CPSC studied the problem of ignition-related deaths among adults several years ago, but voted in 1989 to drop a proposal to put warning labels on garments because it decided the costs would outweigh the benefits.
While the current CPSC activity may or may not result in action, the International Mass Retail Association is using the recent meeting as an example of governmental overreaching to lobby for regulatory reform on Capitol Hill.
Robert J. Verdisco, president of IMRA, sent a copy of the hazard sketch to the House Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley (R, Va.), along with a letter asking the chairman to require agencies to undertake risk-assessment studies before considering new regulations.
“Government must stop ‘crying wolf’ over small and inconsequential risks,” the letter said. “The government should not use incomplete risk assessments to eliminate consumer choice.”
Robin Lanier, IMRA’s vice president, trade and the environment, said the CPSC meeting should never have been called based on the sparse evidence presented in the hazard sketch. She criticized the document as “a bogus piece of science” that draws no causal links between fire deaths and sleepwear. The CPSC “has nothing to hang its hat on except that 140 elderly Americans die each year,” she said.
Some other industry attendees, while still critical of the CPSC’s lack of data, were more sympathetic. “I do know it’s a problem and we would love to do something about it, but I think they need to come up with some facts we can use,” said Lazenby.
— Fairchild News Service