Flammable Liquids

What are the specific hazards of flammable liquids of which we should be aware?

The primary hazards associated with flammable liquids are just what their names imply -- fire and explosion.

Contributing factors to fire incidents involving flammable liquids usually fall into three categories: unsafe use, storage, or transportation of these substances.

Most incidents involving flammable liquids involve one very common flammable liquid in particular, gasoline. The problem is that it's so familiar to people that they tend to become careless with it. Perhaps they wouldn't however, if they remembered that only one gallon of gasoline has the explosive power of six sticks of dynamite!

We're aware that gasoline is a hazardous liquid. Are there some others that we may have on hand in our homes and/or garages that also demand extreme caution when being used?

Yes. The list includes: acetone, alcohol, paint thinner, spray paint, spray adhesives, gasoline additives, engine cleaners, WD-40, cleaning fluids and spot removers -- to name a few. All of these will catch fire and explode if conditions are just right. Therefore, they should never be used around open flames, heat sources -- including pilot lights, or spark producing electrical or mechanical equipment.

Some additional common household products that will likely catch fire and explode if exposed to high heat or open flames include: rubbing alcohol, hair spray, nail polish, nail polish remover, spray disinfectants, insect repellents, furniture polish, prewash/stain removers, etc. When using any of these products, special caution should be exercised and all manufacturer's instructions followed.

We've seen some liquids classified as, "flammable" and others as, "combustible." Don't those terms mean basically the same thing? And, if not, what's the difference?

While the two terms indeed have similar definitions, the difference lies in the fact that flammable liquids will ignite more easily or readily than combustible liquids and are, therefore, even more dangerous. In more technical terms, flammable liquids will produce enough vapors to ignite at temperatures below 100 degrees F, while combustible liquids will give off enough vapors to ignite at temperatures above 100 degrees F. The temperature at which a liquid produces enough vapors to ignite is called its flashpoint.

Both flammable and combustible liquids should be carefully stored in safe locations away from all potential heat sources and in approved tightly-closed metal containers. Because their vapors are even more dangerous than the liquids themselves, it's especially important that they only be used in well-ventilated locations free of possible ignition sources such as pilot lights, spark producing equipment, open flames, etc.

We've read about a number of accidents involving people using flammable liquids for home improvements such as stripping paint or varnish from cabinets, painting and/or paint removal or cleanup, application or removal of certain adhesives used in flooring, tiling, etc. Were these people just careless, or are there usually other factors involved?

Frankly, most of these tragedies result from a combination of carelessness and the presence of ignition sources, for which no safety precautions are taken. Many involve pilot lights in nearby heaters, stoves, water heaters, etc., while others have resulted from sparks created by electrical appliances or machinery. A certain number are also triggered by more obvious hazards such as careless smoking; however, the vast majority consistently involve "the hidden hazards" apparently not taken into account by the victims.

What safety precautions does the Fire Department recommend for handling gasoline (or other flammable liquid) spills on one's skin or clothing?

If you spill gasoline on your skin, avoid breathing the fumes and thoroughly wash the affected area with soap and water right away. Clothing with spilled gasoline should be removed as soon as possible and aired outside for several days before laundering. Also, never launder gasoline-soaked rags (or other non-clothing fabric items) without first airing for several days before placing them in the washer.

WARNING: Because there may still be some residual vapors even in laundered gasoline or other flammable liquid soaked clothing, rags, or other items, DO NOT place them in your clothes dryer! Allow them to air-dry before reusing.

What fire safety advice do you have concerning storing and transportation of gasoline; and, are there any limits on the quantities that may be safely stored and/or transported?

Fire codes mandate that no more than 10 gallons of gasoline be stored in approved safety containers in your garage for maintenance purposes only. (Gasoline should never be brought inside your residence for ANY reason!)

Fire departments do not recommend that citizens transport gasoline at any time in their vehicles. However, if you're ever asked to assist a family member or friend who's run out of gas, never transport more than one gallon of gasoline at a time in an approved, tightly-closed gasoline safety container. Also, be sure to keep partially-used and empty containers tightly closed, as well, to prevent the dangerous vapors inside from escaping. Remember, transporting gasoline is always a dangerous practice since just one gallon has the explosive power of six sticks of dynamite -- better hope you don't get into an accident on the way to your relative or friend's location!

We remember hearing somewhere that flammable liquid vapors are more dangerous than the liquids themselves. Is this true?

Yes. Because they are heavier than air, when allowed to escape, these vapors will flow invisibly along the floor or ground for great distances, exploding upon contact with an ignition source such as a spark or a flame.