Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cigarettes – primary cause of house fire deaths

The deaths of three children in a house fire in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, probably caused by a discarded cigarette, were accidental, a coroner has ruled. Maddie Hudson, three, William Beale, nine, and Anthony Fothergill, five, died in a blaze which left their mother, Samantha Hudson, brain-damaged, an inquest at Hull coroners' court heard.
(Guardian, 31 March 2011)


Linking tobacco smoking and residential fires goes back to the history of modern civilization. For example, Carolus Stephan and Johannes Libaldo, in their book A True Description of the Noble Weed Nicotiana (1643), condemned smoking tobacco as being not only injurious to the smoker’s health, but also highly dangerous to the whole house, sometimes the whole village.

For example, on August 26, 1642, in Görlitz, a town in Prussian Silesia, the whole of the Nicholas district, including church and tower, and about a hundred houses, was burned to the ground due to the fire initiated by a drunken smoker. Under pressure of multiple disastrous fires, the Emperor Ferdinand III signed 16 August 1649 a law forbidding the sale, purchase, and use of tobacco everywhere, requiring confiscation of the tobacco and the pipes.

Another law in Saxony of 19 May 1653 pointed on a fire started out in the cellar of the town hall in Dresden as the reason to outlaw smoking both in beer-houses and cellars, forbidding selling tobacco by a doctor's prescription.

Modern Statistics

Fires cause 1% of the global burden of disease and 300,000 deaths per year worldwide. Smoking causes an estimated 30% of fire deaths in the United States and 10% of fire deaths worldwide.

In France, a single lighted cigarette thrown from a moving car in 1999 ignited a fire in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, a major thoroughfare between France and Italy, causing 39 deaths and over $1 billion in losses to the region.

The Oakland Hills, California, fire, in which a lit cigarette was a cause, left 10,000 homeless, destroyed nearly 4,000 dwellings and cost more than $1.5 billion.

And in Texas City, Texas, the FBI blamed a cigarette for probably igniting an ammonium nitrate explosion in 1947, causing the worst industrial disaster death toll in U.S. history. The explosion caused nearly 600 deaths, 380 hospitalizations longer than two months, 4,100 casualties, and damage to more than 90% of the city's buildings at a cost of more than $4 billion.

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Scientific View

Although cigarettes seem like nothing more than tobacco wrapped in paper, they are in fact carefully engineered to look, taste, smell, and burn a certain way – and essentially to go on burning when not being puffed. This feature spares smokers the trouble of lighting up again, and pays off to vendors in higher sales from cigarettes burning out in ashtrays. But it also means that a cigarette rolling off the lip of an ashtray onto a mattress, or into the crack of a sofa, can smolder undetected for 30 to 40 minutes before bursting into flames.

Smoldering Combustion

Smoldering is a form of flameless combustion which can occur in cellulosic and similar materials capable of charring. Smoldering can occur at very low oxygen concentrations, and proceeds at a very slow rate.

And a most common example of smoldering combustion is the burning of a cigarette. Heat from the glowing combustion zone, which is normally at a temperature of 600°C or more, chars adjacent   tobacco, releasing distillation and pyrolysis. As the combustion zone progresses down the cigarette, compounds are released from the tobacco in any particular region, in a sequence which depends upon the volatility and ease of production of each compound. The tobacco immediately adjacent to the glowing front becomes almost pure carbon. If air is drawn through the cigarette, the temperatures of the combustion zone rises and the rate of progression of the smolder along the cigarette increases.

The presence of an air flow can substantially increase the smolder rate, perhaps by up to ten times.  As the air flow is increased, flaming may result. Fires with smoldering origins require very special   conditions for their development. Suitable materials, finely divided cellulosic substances, can smolder provided that a suitable sustained heat input combined with insulation is available.

Typical materials capable of allowing smoldering to develop include:
  • Traditional furniture.
  • Piled Sawdust.
  • Baled cotton.
  • Latex foam.
  • Corrugated cardboard.
  • Baled hay.
  • Cellulosic fabrics (cotton or rayon).

So, learning these potential dangerous consequences, you may wonder, how come most of the smokers, their families, and their neighborhoods still survived. The point is that developing fire from the cigarette indeed requires bad luck in most cases, as it should be accompanied by special conditions.

Smoldering from a cigarette end requires a pile of materials which are not only susceptible as the above mentioned materials are, but which must also be arranged so that the cigarette or, at the very least, in firm contact. Cigarettes may still cause of fire even when the conditions are theoretically are not critical. In most cases, a cigarette landing on a typical carpet would merely produce a small burn   which would not develop beyond the immediate locality of the glowing tip. Similarly, a cigarette landing on a sheet of paper would be very unlikely to produce anything more than a slight localized charring. Even in waste bins where there may be a considerable amount of torn and crumpled writing paper it is difficult to produce anything more than a minor smoldering fire which may last for only a few minutes.

That is all true, but do you want to perform scientific experiments, endangering yourself and your family? Statistical data shows that in spite the fact that it is not easy to start a fire caused by a cigarette, there are so many people who are managing to achieve the disastrous results.

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Smoker’s Safety

If you smoke or live with someone who smokes, at least learn the facts. A lit cigarette left alone in a room, accidentally dropped onto a chair or bed, or hot cigarette ashes or matches tossed away before they are completely out - all can cause a large fire.

Putting out a cigarette the right way only takes seconds. It is up to you, and you only, to make sure your cigarette is put out, all the way, every time. Better be paranoid with double-verification that you completely killed it before moving out.

Remember that you put in danger not only your own life, but other people as well. One-in-four people killed in home fires is not the smoker whose cigarette caused the fire.
  • More than one third was children of the smokers.
  • Twenty-five percent were neighbors or friends of the smokers.

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Smoking & Home Fire Action Steps

  • If you smoke, smoke outside. Most home fires caused by smoking materials start inside the home. It's better to smoke outside. If you smoke outside, put your cigarettes out in a can filled with sand.
  • Wherever you smoke, use deep, sturdy ashtrays. Use ashtrays with a wide, stable base that are hard to tip over. If it wobbles, it won't work.
  • Make sure cigarettes and ashes are out. The cigarette really needs to be completely stubbed out in an ashtray. Soak cigarette butts and ashes in water before throwing them away. Never toss hot cigarette butts or ashes in the trash can.
  • Check for butts. Chairs and sofas catch on fire fast and burn fast. Don't put ashtrays on them. If people have been smoking in the home, check for cigarettes under cushions.
  • Never smoke in a home where oxygen is used. Never smoke while using oxygen or are anywhere near an oxygen source, even if it is turned off. Oxygen can be explosive and makes fire burn hotter and faster.
  • If you smoke, fire-safe cigarettes are better. Fire-safe cigarettes are less likely to cause fires. These cigarettes have banded paper that can slow the burn of a cigarette that isn't being used.
  • Be Alert. To prevent a deadly fire, you have to be alert. If you are sleepy, have been drinking, or have taken medicine that makes you drowsy, put your cigarette out first. Smoking in bed is just plain wrong.
  • General Fire Safety Facts.
    • Place properly installed and maintained smoke alarms on every level of your home and inside and outside of sleeping areas.
    • Get smoke alarms that can sound fast for both a fire that has flames, and a smoky fire that has fumes without flames. They are called "Dual Sensor Smoke Alarms."
    • Check smoke alarm batteries at least once every year. You can use a familiar date such as when you change your clocks or your birthday as a reminder.
    • Create an escape plan. Plan two ways to escape from every room. Practice the escape plan with everyone in the home.
    • If at all possible, install residential fire sprinklers in your home.
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And, may be it is just better to quit smoking for good!

Sources and Additional Information:

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