Fire safety

Square Deal faces the blowtorch test

Richard Lash has been preparing to meet the blowtorch test. When July 1 comes around, he’ll be ready.

Lash is the co-owner of Square Deal Mattress Factory, Chico’s vaunted micro-manufacturer of quality mattresses. For some time, he has known that a new federal law governing mattresses’ combustibility will go into effect next month.

The law will require all mattresses to withstand an open flame from two blowtorches for two minutes without bursting into flame and to stay below a certain temperature for 30 minutes.

There have been mandatory fire regulations regarding cigarettes and mattresses for more than 30 years … but blowtorches? Now, that’s a tall order.

The good news is the law is expected to save about 270 lives a year. The bad news is it will force millions of Americans to sleep on beds that could be covered with toxic flame-retardant chemicals. That includes babies sleeping on crib mattresses.

Many larger mattress manufacturers are coating their materials with chemicals such as formaldehyde, boric acid, antimony and fiberglass in order to meet the new codes.

“I don’t think any of them are particularly good for you,” said Dr. Gary Incaudo, a Chico allergist. “I just worry about mattresses because it’s right up against your face for a really long time.”

The idea of toxic chemicals in mattresses didn’t sit well with Lash, whose family-owned business has been around for more than 80 years. He realized about four years ago that the new fire-resistant codes were “something we would have to live with,” he said, and Square Deal has been preparing to surpass those standards—but without using a toxic soup of fire retardants.

Square Deal made an effort to find a fire barrier made from natural materials. That turned out to be a layer of batting made out of wool, which is inherently fire resistant, and a blend of other natural fibers that goes just underneath the mattress cover.

The only potentially dangerous chemical in the Square Deal fire barriers is boric acid. And there will be less boric acid in the mattresses than is commonly found in clothes.

Boric acid is considered safe in low doses, but there currently isn’t any scientific data on prolonged exposure. Incaudo seemed to agree that boric acid is probably safe in small does. “It’ll probably be one of the more benign [chemicals] you can use,” Incaudo said. The others, he added, are much worse. He did recommend that people use a mite cover on top of their mattresses.

“The people who write these laws don’t really make mattresses,” Lash said. Sometimes they ask for impossible standards, he added. “You can’t run to the moon.”

The new fire standard will cost mattress manufacturers more than $100 million per year to implement and is the most expensive change the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission has ever made, according to a report by

The cost will be too much for some small companies to absorb, Lash said. He’s confident of his own factory’s survival, but he is concerned the codes will be the death of other small mattress companies.

“They have really been pressed” to meet the new standards, Lash said, and many have “thrown up their arms and given up.”

There are currently only 600 mattress manufacturers in the United States, and the new safety codes could eliminate a third of them.

Making mattresses isn’t just a job for Lash; it’s also a legacy, one he inherited from his grandfather, Ennis Rife, who started the company in 1920.

All of Square Deal’s mattresses are quilted with a fire barrier and sewn together with fire-resistant Kevlar thread. All the seams are double stitched, just to make sure they’re secure.

“It’s inspected stitch-by-stitch by this operator right here,” Lash said pointing to a mattress sitting on a table before a seated young woman, “who is my daughter.”

The new federal regulations do allow people to purchase a chemical-free mattress as long as they get a doctor’s prescription. Square Deal is more than happy to make those specialty beds. “We’re trying to make a safe product,” Lash said.