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Can Cigarettes Cause Fires?

Forensics

by Emma Wilson - Prometheus Forensic Services


I am sure that the majority of you reading this will immediately think of some long ago safety video which is telling you that cigarettes can cause fires and do so on a regular basis. If however a fire investigator trusted by the court told you that they cannot unless they are illicit would you believe them? More importantly perhaps, should you believe them?

The vast majority of countries around the world have regulations in place determining the quality and safety standards of the cigarettes that are legal to sell and purchase within their borders. The US have the Safer Cigarette and the EU and UK have the Reduced Ignition Propensity (RIP – an unfortunate moniker) cigarette. The EU regulations came about as lit cigarettes which had been left unattended were recorded as one of the leading causes of fatal fires in Europe. It was suggested that the number of fatalities could be reduced by over 40% with the introduction of RIP cigarettes. They are designed such that they have thicker areas within their wrapping paper which quenches the smouldering of the cigarette when they are reached. This means that the cigarettes selfextinguish when left unattended and are thus less likely to cause a fire.

Since the 17th November 2011 all cigarettes sold in Europe have to comply with these measures. However this does not mean that a cigarette cannot cause a fire. We really should explore what RIP actually means. The test used in order to determine that a batch of cigarettes meets the regulations is undertaken in laboratory conditions. That is a lit cigarette is put on top of sheets of filter paper and allowed to burn until it self-extinguishes in the presence of minimal airflow. That is, there is no draw on the cigarette, no air movement around it and the fume hood is not drawing air. In order to be considered to have passed the test at least 75% of the cigarettes within the batch must self-extinguish when reaching one of the thickened bands. However that means that up to 25% of the test batch are able to burn to completion and they would still meet the regulations. These cigarettes are called REDUCED ignition propensity specifically because they can still cause fires but the chances are less than if they had remained unmodified. It is therefore untrue to insist that legally manufactured and bought cigarettes
cannot cause fires and that any fires where the ignition source is identified as a cigarette must have been illicit products. Remember that there is a 25% allowed failure rate under test conditions.

The test does not necessarily replicate real life. The still air used in these tests is certainly not realistic when investigating an outdoor fire. Under these circumstances the lack of air movement in the test is not present. In general outdoor conditions cigarettes, including those which have been deemed to meet the
EU regulations, are more likely to continue to burn. In a series of experiments undertaken by the authors there was a 75% failure rate of the cigarettes to selfextinguish when lit and laid on carpet in an outdoor area. This was similar for all of the brands tested. One cigarette of each of the packets used was tested to
determine if they had the required thickened areas within their papers and they did. In a recent case a Fire Investigator had excluded a possible ignition by
cigarette due to the EU regulations. However the fire had occurred outdoors and they had failed to take into account the difference in the conditions when making those conclusions.

If we accept that outdoor conditions can invalidate the test criteria used to deem that a batch of cigarettes has reduced ignition propensity then we must ask if
there are other situations which would make it more likely that RIP cigarettes will continue to smoulder rather than self-extinguish. Would for example an open window or door cause the failure rate of RIP cigarettes to increase above 25%?

Ultimately a fire investigator would not be able to legitimately exclude an RIP cigarette from having caused a fire if the only reason for doing so is that it was an RIP cigarette. It appears that when a fire is determined to have been caused by a lit cigarette there is an automatic assumption by some investigators that the cigarettes were illicit because they caused a fire. There is rarely any testing involved to determine that the cigarettes in the property were illicit rather than RIP. If this line of thinking were taken into a criminal court setting then it is possible that there could be potential accidental causes for fires which are being excluded. We do not want to see miscarriages of justice and ignoring inconvenient evidence creates those situations. Remember they are Reduced Ignition Propensity cigarettes not No Ignition Propensity cigarettes.

So how would a Fire Investigator determine that a cigarette could be the cause of a fire? Anyone examining a scene should take photographs or digital images of all pertinent evidence or information which they later rely on in forming their conclusions. Sometimes the pertinent information is that an ignition source is not present within the property, for example the occupants were not smokers. In this case there is no direct evidence to capture in an image but the examiner’s notes should cover the negative findings or the absence of certain items such as smoke detectors and smoking materials. In order to be sure that ignition sources can be eliminated the scene should be properly and fully excavated, if it is safe to do so. Though one would not expect some ignition sources (such and cigarettes and candles) to necessarily remain at the origin point of a large fire, more robust items such as the metallic parts of cigarette lighters, tea light candles and electrical items remain and can be found. If a scene is not appropriately of them not being found is not robust and should be challenged.

When carrying out a review of a case I always request copies of all images taken at the scene, the notes taken by the examiners at the scene, statements and reports and any relevant witness information used to inform the original conclusions. With this information I can form my own conclusions on the cause and origin
of the fire as well as discuss any issues with the scene investigation.

Emma Wilson
Prometheus Forensic Services
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