Skip to main content
  • February 8, 2007
  • Christine Davis Mantai

Melted shade found at SUNY Fredonia residence hall.

image of lamp with burned shade
Another lamp with melted shade found at SUNY Fredonia. 

One example of the various brands of 5-light multicolored floor lamps which come with plastic shades. More than one brand has been found to be hazardous. Lamps like this with glass shades are safe.

In tracking the source of the smell of something burning, a residence hall director at the State University of New York at Fredonia has created a chain of events that sent a popular product for student dorm rooms to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for investigation.

Early Sunday, Jan.. 21, at 1 a.m. during a night fire walk, Schulz Hall Director Carrie Davenport traced a smell of something burning to a melting plastic shade on a lamp brought to campus by one of her residents. The heat from a light bulb of correct wattage in the “5-Light Multicolored Floor Lamp” had begun melting its plastic shade, which was dripping onto the resident’s bedspread. The plastic was also releasing toxic fumes. Ms. Davenport took the lamp out of the room, and went looking for another one like it that she had seen in another room. She found it, turned it on, and within 15 minutes, the shade from that lamp also began to melt.

Working with the university’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, the residence hall staff widened its investigation throughout the residence halls and turned up an additional three lamps which failed their safety tests by overheating the shades and causing them to melt. In some cases, the students who kept the lamps in their rooms weren’t aware the lampshades had begun to melt.

Environmental Health and Safety Director Marne Smith alerted the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, which began an investigation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “When I looked at the damaged lampshade, I was appalled,” Ms. Smith said. “Carrie Davenport should be commended. The residence life staff handled this by the book.”

Meanwhile, SUNY Fredonia spread the word. The Office of Residence Life sent a notice to all students about the potential hazards of the lamps and asked that they be removed. Ms. Smith posted a warning with photos taken of the melted lamps (visit website here, with photos and sent out an email to several listserves. Almost immediately, the word spread across country as campuses reacted with concern (Example: University of Idaho website bottom of page).

A unit chief at the Jamestown Fire Department, William R. Johnston learned of the warning from his son, a student at SUNY Fredonia. He immediately sent a letter to the university. “I am grateful that Fredonia is taking such prompt action to protect the students,” he said. He recommended further action be taken by notifying government safety authorities, but the university had already started the ball rolling. Another parent, this one from South Carolina, posted news of Fredonia's warning on a blog forum and created a thread of responses from other parents who were familiar with the lamps. “This came from my son's school today,” the parent wrote. “Granted his school is a long way from here, but this would be applicable anywhere. Be careful out there!” 

Before the week was out, Director of Residence Life Gary Bice was hearing from colleagues across the country each day, as was Ms. Smith, whose original e-mail was being broadcast in a flurry of forwarded messages across the U.S.

Many campuses have since issued fire Safety Bulletins warning of the potential hazards of the lamps, including Harvard University.

Mr. Bice said a total of 156 lamps of similar style have been located in the Fredonia residence halls, and students have been asked to voluntarily turn in their lamp if it has a plastic shade. Not all the 156 lamps have plastic shades. Several different brands of the lamp were found at Fredonia, but only those with plastic shades pose a hazard, Ms. Smith said. A five-bulb, multicolored lamp is also made with glass shades, costs much more, and is considered safe.

An inspection sweep of the dorm rooms is expected this weekend and students have been told that the staff will remove any lamps they find with plastic shades. Confiscated lamps would be labeled with the student’s name and stored in the residence life administration office, to be taken home later, if desired.

The university also worked with Nancy Van Voorhees, New York State Fire Inspector, on this case.

Share on: