Celluloid Fires—A Growing Hazard
Newly Developed Uses Continually Adding to the Possibility of Fires in This Material—Some Suggestions for Handling the Celluloid Blaze
CELLULOID, though a trade name for a product manufactured by the Celluloid Company of New Jersey, is now being applied to many other similar materials, made with a pyroxylin base. In fact the term “celluloid” is used almost invariably to indicate pyroxylin products.
As an indication of the extent to which celluloid is now being used in the industries it is only necessary to list a few of the more common applications. These include toilet articles, collars, cuffs, handles for table cutlery, photographic film, billiard halls, piano keys, toys, coverings for bathroom and toilet fixtures, curtains, artificial leather, covering heels, stiffening for box toe shoes, imitation stones for rings, motion picture films, and other items too numerous to list here.
Celluloid may he regarded as a solidified mixture of pyroxylin and camphor (or a substitute for camphor). The pyroxylin is the more active ingredient, and is the one which causes the trouble. In its raw state it is classed with explosives such as gun cotton.
Combustion and Decomposition
Two distinct and separate actions are encountered in connection with celluloid fires: combustion and decomposition. The first process is characterized by a bright flame and little smoke, while the second is accompanied by smoke without flame. The second operation is the more dangerous both from the standpoint of life and fire hazard due to the fact that the fumes thrown off are highly toxic as well as explosive.
In connection with decomposition, heat is generated so that the temperature of the decomposing material increases as the process continues. If air is supplied so that oxygen is present to complete the combustion, the material will burst out into flame. On the other hand, if material is enclosed and cannot he reached by a supply of air, combustion does not take place, although decomposition continues. The gases produced by decomposition may exert tremendous pressure if enclosed air tight. Experiences with celluloid fires have conclusively proven this statement. The force generated may he sufficient to dislodge walls or floors, even though no explosion takes place.
Dangerous Ingredients in Celluloid Fumes
As to the dangerous ingredients in the fumes given off by decomposing celluloid, the following figures based on an analysis made by the Alleghany Board of Fire Underwriters a few years ago are of interest:
Nitrous oxide. 28.5 percent by volume of the gases created by decomposition; carbon monoxide, 28.3 percent; carbon dioxide. 7.3 percent.
Of these three gases the first two are considered dangerous by fire department members, while the latter is not commonly so considered, not having the toxic effect of the first two, though producing a smothering effect.
The temperature at which decomposition takes place may vary with different specimens of celluloid, but it is usually in the neighborhood of between 250° to 300° F. With perfect insulation it might decompose at a lower temperature than that stated.
Another point which deserves attention is this: celluloid may decompose in the open air provided sufficient heat is applied to it. Once decomposition starts, the temperature increases, and the mass will eventually burst into flame unless it is cooled off by the application of water or other substances.
With reference to the temperature of ignition of the gases of decomposition, this cannot be definitely stated, although it is generally believed to be in the neighborhood of 500° F.
The celluloid itself probably ignites at a slightly lower temperature. Some authorities consider that it will take fire at a temperature as low as 325° F.
Of all extinguishing agents, water is the most effective to apply to burning celluloid. It cools the materials off to a point below reignition point and thus extinguishes the blaze. But it is absolutely necessary that water be applied in sufficient quantity and sufficiently early if success is desired. So rapidly does celluloid burn, that unless water is applied almost instantly after the start of a blaze there is little chance of holding the fire—assuming sufficient celluloid is present in the establishment.
As noted above no other extinguishing agents is as effective as water, and for that reason the fire department in responding to a fire involving celluloid should figure on the use of the maximum number of streams.
Hazards Involved in Fighting Fires
In connection with fighting the fire, several hazards are involved, including the intense heat, the tremendous rapidity of spread of the blaze, generation and possible explosion of inflammable fumes, and the toxic nature of the fumes so produced.
In view of the fact that a celluloid plant may be of any size, and may produce articles of a wide variety, it is impracticable to suggest specific methods of fighting the celluloid fire. It is only possible to treat the subject in a general way, pointing out those practices which are considered most effective in operating on such fires, and the steps which are necessary to safeguard the lives of the men engaged in extinguishing operations.
If ever speed were necessary in getting streams in operation on a fire, it is in the instance of the celluloid blaze. Large quantities of water, are needed at once. Small streams will not answer the purpose. A few minutes delay may mean complete destruction of a building.
Thorough ventilation is vital, before men attempt to enter a building wherein celluloid is burning. The noxious fumes thrown off by burning celluloid are extremely dangerous to life, and many instances are on record where death has occurred due to inhaling such fumes. Operations may have to be carried on from the outside of the building, until the fumes are drawn up through the vertical shafts in the bpilding by plenty ventilation.
Dangers from Exploding Gases
Be on the alert for explosion of gases thrown off by burning or decomposing celluloid. Until ventilation has been fully accomplished, do not permit men in near proximity to windows or doors, and particularly where they are on fire escapes and ladders. Depend largely upon heavy streams from the street, from deck guns, or from water towers until the fire brought under control or ventilation properly accomplished. When the building has been freed of the fumes, and there is little danger of men being injured by such, then closer operations may be employed.
The majority of celluloid establishments are located in buildings of no great height, which is an advantage when it comes to fighting fires therein. While some loft buildings are occupied by concerns manufacturing celluloid articles on a comparatively large scale, the limited size of the stock on hand and the presence of automatic sprinklers help tremendously in checking fires which may originate therein. The most serious fires, however, occur in buildings from one to four stories in height, and which fires can be combated successfully from the street until such time as lines can safely enter the structure without injury to men.
Remember, where the heavy yellow fumes are being generated there is an extreme explosion hazard as well as life hazard.
If storerooms are encountered where doors are closed, but where gases are being discharged through the cracks around the doors in quantity, and where men must operate in the near neighborhood of such gases, use spray streams to drive the gases back while men are working in the presence thereof. Furthermore, if the storerooms are tightly closed be on the alert for possible bursting of the walls due to the pressure created by the confined gases. See that all windows in the fire building in the neighborhood of the blaze are open so that the gases may be driven to the atmosphere. If such unburned gases reach open fire, a flash back or explosion may be exacted. The water absorbs noxious gases to a large extent, and in addition, lowers the temperature of decomposing celluloid, thus checking the generation of the gases.
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