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'How Safe are Products Bearing the UL Mark?' - December, 1999

'How Safe are Products Bearing the UL Mark?' - December, 1999

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Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is the worlds largest independent product testing company.
The integrity of UL’s scientific testing of ionization smoke alarms has been under scrutiny
since UL said they would address their flawed testing in a 1978 Business Week Magazine
 article . . .
More information is at:
Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is the worlds largest independent product testing company.
The integrity of UL’s scientific testing of ionization smoke alarms has been under scrutiny
since UL said they would address their flawed testing in a 1978 Business Week Magazine
 article . . .
More information is at:

More info:

Categories:Types, Research, Law
Published by: The World Fire Safety Foundation on Apr 02, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Your Cooperative Newsmagazine
MAY 2000 VOL.35 NO.5MAY 2000 VOL.35 NO.5
by Caroline E.Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer 
t’s on the alarm clock thatrousts you out of bed in themorning, the reading lamp youturn off at night. It can be spottedon your coffee maker and toaster, yourrefrigerator, stove and gas grill — andyour TV, CD player, telephone andcomputer monitor.It” is the UL mark, a small circle sur-rounding the letters “UL” that certifiesan appliance, no matter what size orpurpose, has been approved by theworld’s largest independent testingservice, Underwriters Laboratories.Stamped on nearly 15 billion productsa year, it is, in the words of Debra Rade,UL chief legal officer and senior vicepresident of administrative operations,“the American mark of safety.”There’s no question that UL pro-vides a valuable service and even thesharpest critics of the not-for-profitcompany — such as Jesse Aronstein, aNew York engineer who has taken ULto task over the past 20 years, chal-lengingmany of its standards — say theUL mark guarantees that a product issafer than if UL weren’t around. Butover the past several years, a numberof UL-approved products — spaceheaters, halogen lamps, baby monitorsand toasters — have caused fires.In one case, the popular Omega firesprinkler system — approved 15 yearsago — has been found to fail 30 percentof the time. And some ionization smokedetectors and carbon monoxide alarmsdesigned to pass UL laboratory testsdidn’t work as promised in the “realworld.”Firefighting officials, who for manyyears championed UL as a world leaderin safety testing and standards, havebegun to openly express doubts in thewake of the recall of more than eightmillion sprinklers. In fact, the NationalAssociation of State Fire Marshals is con-sidering challenging UL’s tax-exempt sta-tus, granted by Congress in 1954 to orga-nizations “testing for the public safety.”We’re experiencing more problemsthan we had before,” says David Smith,president of Associated Fire Consultants,an Arizona fire-investigation firm. “A lotof products seem to be hitting the mar-ket that are not fire safe but have beendeemed so by UL.”Rade counters that among the 17,000different products tested by UL “thereare very few [approved] that present asubstantial hazard. Problems that dooccur are caused by new technology —or old technology put to a new use.Through those problems we’ve learnedthat the system works. As soon as prob-lems are uncovered, the wheels are setin motion to analyze the issue andrespond.”
What UL Does
UL’s origins trace back to 1893 whenthe Chicago Board of Fire Underwriterssent electrical investigator WilliamHenry Merrill to discover the cause of fires at the Columbian Exposition.Seeing a need for a safety-testing orga-nization, Merrill launched UL in theback room of a Chicago fire station.What started as a two-man operationwith $350 worth of equipment has nowgrown into an international corpora-tion with $512 million in assets, $407million in annual revenue, more than
The goldstandard” ofAmericansafety — theUnderwritersLaboratoriesseal — maybe tarnished,say some fireofficials
MAY 20005
5,200 employees and 13 laboratoriesworldwide. It oversees more than 700safety standards and runs 89,000 prod-uct investigations a year.A walk through UL’s Northbrook,Ill., headquarters and testing facilitieshighlights the varied products vying forthe UL mark — window glass, roofingshingles and wallboard; bulletproof vests, safes and locks; TVs, CD playersand pinball machines; vacuum cleaners,toasters and pizza ovens; hair dryers,garbage disposals and flashlights; med-ical beds, garage doors and even pet-bed warmers.“We don’t test for quality but forany foreseeable hazard — fire, shock,sharp edges, radiation,” explains JohnDrengenberg, UL manager of con-sumer affairs. “We look for the worstpossible conditions, simulate them andtest them to ensure that if a productfails, it fails safely.”So fire resistant safes are subjectedto 2,000 degrees of heat and thendropped the equivalent of five storiesonto broken cement blocks to makesure the safes won’t pop open and thepapers inside aren’t charred beyondlegibility. A hand-held hair dryer isdropped three times on hardwoodfloors to see if it breaks to the pointwhere consumers can come into con-tact with live wires and be shocked orelectrocuted. The cord is flexed 3,000times — 10 times per minute — tomake sure it isn’t likely to break dur-ing normal use.TVs are deliberately short-circuitedto see if they start fires. A refrigeratordoor is opened and closed 300,000times to see if the door can still beopened from the inside so childrencan’t get trapped after it is discarded.For pop-up toasters, temperaturetests are run to see if cords, wires andplastic housing get too hot. But no testsare run to see what happens when foodgets stuck in the toaster, jams the heat-ing element to keep it from poppingup, then ignites — an increasingly com-mon problem as more consumers heatup large bread products likes bagelsand pastries. From 1993-96, there wereat least 30 fires caused by toasters thatfailed to shut off.UL has declined to add a food test,saying foods such as bread vary so muchthat it would be scientifically impossibleto create a test that could be repeatedprecisely in different labs around thecountry. It took UL two years to proposeanother solution — an automatic shut-off switch. But that proposal, issued latelast year, is not scheduled to take effectuntil 2002 at the earliest.Rade acknowleges that UL’s deci-sion-making process may seem slowand mysterious. “But that’s only becausewe’re an engineering organization,”she adds. “We pay very careful attentionto detail to make sure everything is inorder before issuing any announce-ment, decision or revision.All UL standards are developed toanticipate real-world events,” she con-tinues. “If we dont anticipate everything,if there’s a misuse of product we neverthought of, we change our standard.”UL officials are very proud of whatthey’ve accomplished. “The U.S. enjoysthe highest level of safety in the world— that’s indisputable. And one of thereasons the U.S. enjoys that is becauseUL has set the entire foundation forproduct-safety certification,” Radedeclares.
Fueling The Fire
But interviews with more than 50 fireexperts, safety officials, building-codeauthorities, engineers and lawyersaround the country and a review of thousands of pages of documentsobtained from court suits and the U.S.Consumer Product Safety Commission(CPSC) under the Freedom of Infor-mation Act highlight a number of con-cerns about UL:
UL’s safety tests may not reflectwhat happens in the real world. Morethan 350 ionization smoke detectors —which account for 90 percent of allsmoke detectors sold in the U.S. — havefailed to sound an alarm in residentialfires; about one-third of those samedetectors were sent back to the manu-facturer for retesting and were found tohave passed UL smoke standard.Joseph Fleming, Boston fire mar-shal and deputy fire chief, has con-cluded, after 10 years of study, that theionization smoke detector does notprovide sufficient protection in “coldsmoke,” or smoldering fires — onesnot hot enough to drive smokeupward toward the ceiling wheredetectors are placed. The reason, heclaims: UL’s smoldering-fire test waswritten more than 20 years ago anddoes not reflect different syntheticmaterials now used in upholsteryand mattresses.
SAFETYREVISTED:Over thepast severalyears,anumber ofUL-approvedproducts — halogenlamps,toasters,firesprinkler systems,ion-ization smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms — have caused fires or failed to prevent them whenoperating in “real world” conditions.
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