Spontaneous Combustion: Dangers of Linseed Oil

Published: Nov. 14, 2011 at 5:10 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 14, 2011 at 10:20 PM EST
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – Spontaneous Combustion, it really can happen. All it takes is some rags and a common cleaner used to treat wood or clean tools. It's called Linseed Oil. We talked to local firefighters about the chemical and what you can do to prevent a tragedy.

One of the worst high rise fires in U.S. History, happened in Philadelphia in 1991. Three firefighters died. Investigators say it started after workers left behind rags stained with linseed oil. It is commonly used to protect wood from the elements but soaked rags, can spontaneously combust. Lt. . Jason Elmore, with the Chesterfield Fire Department says, "For a lack of better terms, that is exactly what it is. When the oxidation starts to happen, to dry itself out, it is producing its own heat and if doing so, it is around something that's combustible, it can produce enough heat to catch it on fire."

We've never had a fire like the one in Philadelphia but the department has worked fires caused by linseed oil. He says, "It kind of just festers there and you won't notice it. It can happen after hours, it can happen when you are sleep and start a fire. Once a fire starts, we all know what a fire can do at that point."

Lt.. Elmore say a big mistake people make, is they just ball up the rags with linseed oil and throw them in a corner or a trash-bin.

He says, "It is a good product to use. We are not trying to tell anyone not to use it but you do have to be careful in using it." We wanted to see how linseed oil could cause a fire, Lt. . Elmore did a demonstration. We didn't see a fire but a television station in Cincinnati got better results. Each dry rag generated heat. Within two hours, smoke was visible and temperature reached as high as 329 degrees. Lt. . Elmore says, 'It might not be instantaneous, it might be several hours to even days before something could happen."

To avoid fire danger, investigators suggest putting your used rags on a non flammable surface to dry, in an open area, like your driveway.  "It is not bunched up in a corner but just nice easy way to do it. Just lay them out flat until they are completely dry. Once they are dry, you can clean them up. Use a hose if you have to or a washing machine," Lt. . Elmore explained.

If you wash them in a machine, remember, not to wash them with other clothes or fabrics. You can also put the rags in a tin can with a lid to keep out oxygen. Never store rags in your home or in the garage. Another important tip, always read the directions to make sure you are using the chemical properly and are aware of any possible dangers.

Because of the dangers, the Chesterfield Fire Department stopped using linseed oil to clean equipment. Lt. . Elmore says, in liquid form, linseed oil is relatively safe. He also adds, during warmer months, rags soaked in linseed oil will ignite quicker than during colder times of the year.

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