Fire extinguishers are a feature in many homes, but you’ve recently wondered if that necessarily makes these devices safe to use. While it may seem counterintuitive, the devices designed to put out fires could harbor their own dangers. So, can fire extinguishers kill you?
Well, a fire extinguisher can kill you, but it’s unlikely. The high pressure of the gas used to propel the chemicals can lead to injuries if the fire extinguisher is misused. Also, inhaling and ingesting the chemicals in a fire extinguisher can cause poisoning, irritation, and other health risks.
Let’s dig deeper to unfold the truth about these supposed safety devices.
What Will Happen If You Inhale Fire Extinguisher?
Inhaling the contents of a fire extinguisher is hazardous and potentially life-threatening. Some fire extinguishers have substances such as dry chemical powder or carbon dioxide, which are harmful when inhaled. Inhaling these contents can cause respiratory irritation, shortness of breath, lung problems, and heart problems, to name a few.
It would be better to seek medical attention immediately if you accidentally inhale the contents of a fire extinguisher. Make sure you evacuate the area and go to a well-ventilated area to get fresh air. Contacting emergency services or a poison control center is essential to get guidance on dealing with the situation.
Here are the most common health issues associated with inhaling the contents of a fire extinguisher:
- Lung Problems: When you inhale toxic fumes, they infiltrate your lungs. This may irritate your respiratory tract and possibly damage your heart.
- Heart Problems: Inhaling toxic gases can bring about heart problems. The chemicals in a fire extinguisher can cause inflammation of your arteries and blood vessels, resulting in clogged arteries and even heart attacks in the worst-case scenario.
- Skin Problems: Your body’s immune system responds to the inhaled toxic fumes by generating its own chemicals known as histamines. These chemicals are emitted in response to tissue damage triggered by injury, infection, or allergens and can lead to skin rashes and other allergic reactions.
- Kidney Damage: The chemicals in fire extinguishers can lead to kidney damage when the inhaled chemicals infiltrate the bloodstream and see the sights of the kidney.
- Cancer: Inhaling toxic chemicals and long-term exposure to these toxins can aggravate your risk of cancer.
What Is In a Fire Extinguisher?
Fire extinguishers come in different types, and they are rated A, B, C, D, or K. Here are the contents of a fire extinguisher:
If oxygen displacement is required to extinguish a fire, a fire extinguisher may contain gaseous agents called halons. Halon 1211 and Halon 1301 are the most commonly used Halons in fire extinguishers. Halons are used as an extinguishing agent in Class B and Class C fire extinguishers.
- Water Additives
Class D fire extinguishers may release plain water, usually in the form of mist, air-pressurized water, or pump water. Water additives, wet chemicals, or wetting agents are far more frequently used in fire extinguishers. These products can put out Class A and Class K fires.
- Wet chemical
Wet chemical fire extinguishers fight the flames by eliminating two of the fire triangle’s three parts (heat and oxygen). These extinguishers use wet potassium acetate to create a cooling effect while also suppressing the fire.
This makes wet chemical extinguishers effective at fighting high-temperature grease fires that sometimes happen in commercial kitchens.
Non-aspirated and aspirated foams will cut off the fire’s oxygen supply, preventing it from spreading. Aqueous film-forming foam is used to extinguish Class A and Class B fires. If the fire has alcohol as fuel, you’ll need a fire extinguisher with alcohol-resistant film-forming foam.
Another fire extinguisher option is the compressed air foam system. This one releases foam at a rate over 140 pounds per square inch of pressure or psi and can extinguish Class A and Class B fires.
A fire extinguisher will emit a dry powder if not water additives, foam, or halon. Monoammonium phosphate is the most common powder ingredient, nicknamed “the ABC dry chemical” because of its suitability for Class A, Class B, and Class C fires.
Monoammonium phosphate has a pale yellow hue and is highly corrosive. Potassium bicarbonate powder is used particularly for Class B and Class C fires if mono ammonium phosphate is absent.
Another ingredient used to make fire extinguisher powder is sodium bicarbonate. When used on Class B or Class C fires, sodium bicarbonate emits carbon dioxide, which suffocates the fire.
Fire Extinguisher Safety Tips
Fire extinguishers are life-saving devices, but only if they are used correctly. Below is an outline of how to use a fire extinguisher safely:
- Get all occupants out: You should only tackle a fire with a fire extinguisher if everybody else is safely out of the premises. Also, only proceed to put out the fire if you have a clear escape route. Once all occupants exit the building and you have determined your exits, you can safely fight the fire.
- Only use a fire extinguisher for small, confined fires: Fire extinguishers are not designed to prevent large or spreading fires. Only attempt to extinguish the fire if the flames are shorter than you and are contained in a small space. Leave the area immediately if the flames exceed your height or the fire is snowballing.
- Evacuate a room engulfed in smoke: Don’t put out fire on your own if the room is filled with smoke. Smoke inhalation can result in unconsciousness, and you’ll be stuck in the room with the growing fire. Cover your mouth and get down on the floor if the room has excessive smoke. Stay low and crawl out of the area to safety to avoid smoke inhalation.
- Use the appropriate fire extinguisher: Fire extinguishers are filled with various dousing agents to put out specific classes of fires. Some models are good at extinguishing certain fires, whereas others might worsen the fire. So, before fighting a fire, ensure you know the fire fuel and only proceed with the appropriate fire extinguisher.
- Class A: Ideal for cloth, rubber, wood, paper, various plastics, and ordinary combustible fires. Water or foam is the extinguishing agent.
- Class B: Ideal for fighting gasoline, oil, and grease fires. Carbon dioxide or dry chemicals are the extinguishing agent.
- Class C: Ideal for energized electrical fires. Carbon dioxide or dry chemical is the extinguishing material.
- Class D: Ideal for combustible metals and uses a dry powdered chemical as the extinguishing agent.
- Class K: Ideal for kitchen fires, including grease, oil, and fat. The extinguishing material in Class K fire extinguishers is a wet or dry chemical.
- Class ABC: This all-purpose model extinguishes Class A, B, and C fires. Such extinguishers use a dry chemical as the extinguishing agent.
How to Use a Fire Extinguisher
Knowing how to use a fire extinguisher might save your life in case of a fire outbreak. The idea is to use the “PASS” strategy: pull the pin, aim the hose, squeeze the lever, and sweep the hose.
Before fighting a fire with a fire extinguisher, it would help to determine whether the device is appropriate for putting out the fire you’re dealing with and whether or not you can handle the fire.
If unsure if you can fight the fire, evacuate the building immediately and contact the fire department. Here’s how to use a fire extinguisher:
Step 1: Stand With Your Back to An Exit:
Taking some safety precautions before using a fire extinguisher is always good. Determine the nearest exit and position yourself in such a way that your back is facing the exit. This makes it easy to evacuate the room if you have to leave quickly during an emergency.
Step 2: Pull the Pin:
All fire extinguishers have a pin inserted into the handle that keeps the fire extinguisher from being discharged accidentally. Grab the ring and drag the pin out from the handle’s side. The extinguisher should now be ready to discharge. Hold it so the nozzle is directed away from you.
Step 3: Aim the Hose at the Base of the Fire:
Grasp the lower handle lever (the carrying handle) with your dominant hand and use the other to grab the hose or nozzle. Aim the hose directly at the base of the fire as you have to extinguish the burning fuel. Never point the hose at the flames because it is not the fuel source, plus you’ll only make a little progress.
Note: Avoid holding the plastic discharge horn for carbon dioxide extinguishers as it gets extremely cold.
Step 4: Squeeze the Lever:
Use one hand to squeeze the two levers to discharge the extinguishing agent while you point the hose at the base of the fire with the other. Apply even pressure when squeezing the levers.
Step 5: Sweep the Hose from Side to Side:
Slowly sweep the hose from side to side over the base of the fire to put out all the fuel as you discharge the fire extinguisher. Edge closer to the fire as the flames fizzle out. Keep discharging until the fire dies, including any glowing embers, which might reignite.
Step 6: Repeat If the Flames Flare Up:
Monitor the fire to ensure the flames don’t reignite again. Back away slightly if they do and point the hose, squeeze the lever, and sweep it across the fire’s base to put it out. Don’t turn your back on a fire.
Step 7: Evacuate the Area If You Cannot Extinguish the Fire:
An average extinguisher will have enough extinguishing agent inside to go for a couple of seconds. Back away and evacuate immediately if the fire does not fizzle out when the extinguisher is fully discharged. Call the fire department to extinguish the flames before they get out of control.
Step 8: Replace or Recharge Your Fire Extinguisher:
Some fire extinguishers are disposable and should be thrown away after discharge. Others can be recharged and refilled with an agent and re-pressurized.
Avoid leaving an empty extinguisher lying around, as someone might try to use it in an emergency only to realize it’s empty. If your device is rechargeable, do so right away; otherwise, you might find yourself with an ineffective fire extinguisher in the next emergency.
Maintenance Tips of a Fire Extinguisher
Most fires start small enough to be quickly extinguished with a fire extinguisher. This makes fire extinguishers your first line of defense, and keeping them in good working condition is key to your property’s safety. But what should you do to ensure your fire extinguisher functions when you need it most?
Let’s go over the maintenance tips of a fire extinguisher.
- Check for signs of corrosion
If your fire extinguisher has been sitting for years without use, it will likely develop some corrosion or rust buildup. Inspect the device for any signs of damage or leaks. Even the tiniest leak will render your fire extinguisher inoperable. Check the unit monthly for signs of a leak or corrosion.
- Shake It Around
The chemicals in a fire extinguisher can settle to the bottom when the unit sits for an extended period without being used. The last thing you want is to discover that your extinguishers do not work during an emergency. Shake around the dry chemicals in the device monthly to keep the contents from hardening at the bottom of the canister.
- Recharge and Replace
Fire extinguishers are simple. They don’t feature intricate lever systems that are difficult to understand. Check that the tamper seal and pin on the canister are still intact.
If not, replace the fire extinguisher. It’s advisable to recharge your extinguishers after each use for adequate fire protection for your home and business.
- Ensure the Fire Extinguishers Are Accessible
Ensure your extinguishers are clear of clothing, furniture, or other objects. If any, remove the obstructions immediately to facilitate ease of access to the fire extinguisher in case of an emergency. Avoid mounting fire extinguishers on high shelves or behind closets where they will be challenging to access during a fire outbreak.
- Schedule a Professional Inspection
Make sure your fire extinguishers are inspected and serviced by an accredited fire protection company. The inspector will check the extinguisher for any damage and recharge, replace, or repair the device as needed.
They will also leave a tag on each extinguisher indicating the inspection date and that it was serviced accordingly.
- Schedule Six Year Inspections
Six-year inspections differ from annual ones in the sense that your fire extinguisher inspector will empty the device to examine the mechanical parts inside.
Fire extinguishers can serve you for ten years and beyond. Being in use for this duration might have resulted in wear, and a full-body inspection will help revitalize the extinguisher’s condition.
If the unit works fine, it will be refilled, re-pressurized, and resealed. Then, the inspector will record this inspection on your tags.
- Clean the Fire Extinguisher and Check the Pressure
Regularly clean the device to remove dust, oil, and grease. A dense film of dirt or dust can make the handle’s pivot challenging to use. Another helpful tip is to check the pressure.
Fire extinguishers often feature a pressure gauge that indicates whether the unit is within the recommended operation range. If your extinguisher has this feature, ensure the gauge’s needle shows proper pressure.
If the needle is in the green area, your device should be in good working condition. If so, schedule a monthly reminder on your phone to check the gauge. If the needle is in the red or white area, your extinguisher needs to be serviced.
If your fire extinguisher doesn’t have a gauge, it’s likely an old model, meaning it would help to take it to a professional to test it and, if possible, recharge it. A professional recharge costs between $15 and $20 compared to a new model, which typically runs between $100 to $200.
- Know the Warning Signs
There are numerous signs that your fire extinguisher won’t function, no matter its age. If the canister is bruised or the tamper seal is missing, the unit might explode unprompted. Check the entire device; if it’s not in good working order, dispose of it immediately.
Please do not throw the extinguisher into the recycle bin as it still has dangerous, pressurized chemicals inside that can explode.
Inappropriate fire extinguisher disposal can be subject to a fine based on where you live. As such, take your unit to a hazardous waste collection site or local fire department.
- Store the Unit In a Clean, Indoor Location
Sun, wind, ultraviolet radiation, or rain exposure can lead to corrosion, rust, and premature deterioration. Dusty and dirty environments can impair the extinguisher’s ability to operate correctly, reducing lifespan.
Now, let’s touch on how to clean up fire extinguisher residue.
- Dry chemical fire extinguisher residue: Vacuum or sweep up loose debris. Use isopropyl alcohol diluted 50% with warm water to spray on the stuck-on residue. Leave the solution on the surface for a few minutes before cleaning it with a wet rag.
Apply hot water and 2 percent vinegar to remove sodium and potassium bicarbonate residue. After that, wipe the area with a wet rag. For monoammonium phosphate residue, use baking soda and hot water paste. Clean the affected area with soap and water, then rinse and let the area dry.
- Wet chemical fire extinguisher residue: Wear rubber gloves and wipe away any residue using a sponge dipped in hot, soapy water. Rinse the affected surfaces and let everything dry to the touch.
- Halon fire extinguisher residue: Spread diluted degreaser to the residue and use a sponge to clean small spots or a spray bottle for broader surfaces. Use a neutral cleaner to remove the lingering residue, then rinse the area and allow it to dry.
Is It Dangerous to Use a Carbon Dioxide Fire Extinguisher?
Carbon dioxide fire extinguishers, like other models, can save lives when used appropriately. However, using a carbon dioxide extinguisher when fighting flammable gases and cooking oil fires or in a confined space is dangerous. The risks associated with a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher include:
- Asphyxiation: If you use a carbon dioxide extinguisher in a poorly ventilated room, there’s a risk of asphyxiation.
- High pressure: When released, the carbon dioxide in the extinguisher changes from liquid into gas. The working pressure is approximately 55 BAR (as opposed to 12 BAR in a water-based device), meaning that if you use the extinguisher with the incorrect hose and horn, the kick from the device will cause injuries. This includes wrist stains or, in the worst-case scenario, a broken wrist.
- Frost burn: When the carbon dioxide converts from a liquid to a gas during discharge, the temperature is relatively low. Frost burn is a real danger if you do not hold the device properly or if your extinguisher lacks a frost-free horn.
- Electrical risks: There’s the obvious risk of electrocution if you try to check the fire once you think it’s fully extinguished after fighting an electrical fire. It’s always safe to disconnect the electricity supply via emergency shut-off switches or isolate the power supply before putting out the fire.
Despite these setbacks, carbon dioxide fire extinguishers remain valuable for combating fires. The gas released displaces the oxygen in the atmosphere around the fire.
If you understand the fire triangle, you know that oxygen is among the three basic things a fire needs to sustain itself. The fire will be entirely extinguished by eliminating oxygen from the triangle and smothering it with discharged carbon dioxide gas.
The contents of a fire extinguisher are meant to suppress fires by interfering with the combustion process, but with it comes health risks. This takes us back to our subject of discussion…
Can Fire Extinguishers Kill You?
Inhaling the contents of a fire extinguisher can kill you or cause severe health complications. For instance, dry chemical powder can trigger respiratory irritation and lung issues. On the other hand, carbon dioxide can lead to suffocation and even death if inhaled in large quantities as it displaces oxygen in the air.