Self-combusting tea towel fire risk warning

14 December 2016 by
Self-combusting tea towel fire risk warning

Operators have been warned about the dangers of self-combusting tea towels after it emerged they were the cause of two pub blazes in the past two years.

Commercial insurer NFU Mutual is urging publicans, restaurateurs and hoteliers to exercise caution following insurance claims related to the fires.

In 2015, the Unicorn's Head pub in Langar, Nottinghamshire, suffered fire damage so extensive that the business was forced to close for 12 months as the building was restored. The tenants were woken at 5am and evacuated from the building as it went up in flames.

Forensics found the cause of the fire to be tea towels, which the tenants had soaked in stain remover before washing, not realising that the fat combined with the detergent would cause the towel to self-combust.

In May this year, the Wheatsheaf in Edith Weston, Rutland, also suffered damage after a fire was caused by tumble-dried tea towels. The tenant left a number of warm tea towels at the bottom of the dryer drum and just over an hour later, the first floor of the building was ablaze. The business was closed for over six months.

Tea towels can catch alight when a residue of fat and oil embedded in the fabric reacts with the oxygen in the air, which releases heat and, in some cases, spontaneous ignition of the towel.

Oxidisation is also increased when combined with heat such as tumble drying, or being placed near a heat source. Oxidising detergent chemicals such as peroxide found in stain remover can also cause the chemical reaction, without the need for heat.

Darren Seward, hospitality specialist at NFU Mutual, said: "Although tea towels may appear clean once washed, they may still have the remains of cooking oils and fats or chemicals on them that are invisible to the eye. If they are then put into a tumble dryer, the combination of heat, cooking fats and oxygenating chemicals from stain-removing detergent products can create a chemical reaction and cause the towel to self-heat, smoulder and eventually catch fire."

"Equally, dirty tea towels contaminated with oil pose a similar combustion risk, especially if they are dry and placed near a heat source. A fire could be caused by a situation as innocent as someone leaving a pile of dirty tea towels ready for washing the next day, so we would advise people not to stack them up ready for washing. An unsuspecting mistake could put people in danger and cost your business thousands of pounds if there is a fire.

"To help prevent the issue, tea towels and cloths in kitchens should be washed at high temperatures to try to ensure that oils are completely removed. If the towels are dried in a tumble drier it is important that the cycle is allowed to run to the end, including the cool-down cycle, and that the towels are removed immediately and left to air rather than being folded or placed in a bag. People should also be wary that soaking tea towels in a stain remover and not washing immediately might also carry a risk of self-heating."

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