Glass Fire Extinguishers Or Grenades
Glass Fire Extinguishers Can Be Hazardous To Your Health!
by Kathy Greer

   A recent accident at a group shop in New Hampshire brought to our attention a potential danger that could be lurking in your home, if you collect them…or in your shop, if you sell them. We’re talking about highly collectible glass fire extinguishers (commonly called grenades), those antique glass balls (often teardrop or bottle shaped), sometimes shaped like a glass rolling pin, that were used years ago to extinguish fires. As it turns out, many of them are filled with harmless salt water…but many others, typically the “later” mass produced variety are filled with Carbon Tetrachloride, a dangerous chemical that can potentially cause lung damage with just one exposure…liver and kidney damage…and even death.
   In January, 2001, when one of these glass “grenades” broke at a NH group shop, the result was a shop evacuation and five hours of dealing with the NH HazMat team. To our knowledge, this is the second time in just two years that this has happened in a local group shop. Fortunately, it would appear so far no one has been seriously injured, but the danger and potential liability prompted this report to our readers.
   In an article entitled Fire Grenades, written by Bob and Phoebe Adams, and available on the internet at http://www.insulators.com/go-withs/firegren.htm examples of glass fire extinguishers are relatively common and are particularly easy to find at bottle and insulator shows. The authors mention that in 1997 they had three examples in their own household which were “a center of conversation whenever our family and friends gather.”
  According to FireGrenades.com, a website devoted to selling reproduction Fire Extinguishers at http://firegrenades.com/glasshistory.htm “Around 1860, the first transcontinental fire extinguisher was developed, the “Hand Grenade Fire Extinguisher”. They lasted from 1860 to approximately 1900. The contents were merely salt water solutions with added bicarbonate of soda or muriate of ammonia. The salt water was important so that the grenade could be advertised as “Non-Freezing”. The fire grenades were sealed with cork and cement in order to keep the contents from evaporating. They came in various colors: Blues, Ambers, Greens and Clear glass. Their styles were ornate, which made them decorative as well as functional. For their duration, they were used in homes, factories, schools, train stations and other types of buildings.”
   By the 1880s, the Harden “Star” Hand Grenade Fire Extinguisher had become the most popular brand, consisting of a glass globe, hermetically sealed and filled with a chemical fluid. According to the Fire Grenade.com website, THE HARDEN HAND GRENADE FIRE EXTINGUISHER CO. HANDBOOK, PUBLISHED IN CHICAGO, AUGUST 1, 1884, stated: The contents of the grenade, when thrown upon or into a fire, vaporize immediately into immense volumes of fire extinguishing gas in which combustion can not possibly exist.”
   As it turns out, Carbon Tetrachloride was the chemical of choice as it vaporizes immediately – therein lies part of its danger to humans (and all animals). It is easily absorbed both through the lungs and the skin.
   Interestingly, by the turn-of-the-century, tubular “dry” extinguishers were becoming highly popular. According to an ad for the Harness “Ready” Fire-Extinguisher Company in The Illustrated London News, April 10, 1886, reprinted at the FireGrenades.com website: “A new wonderful discovery of extinguishing dangerous fire by means of a dry carbolic gas producing powder. The dry powder tube is ever at hand. So simple it’s use involves no previous training nor any high order of intelligence and whose durability is such that time or climate had been found not to affect it at all. Fitted with a detachable cover with a ring, hang the tube on a hook or a nail. When use is required, jerk the tube down from the hanger, thus removing the top and throw contents from tube hard as possible into base of flames. For chimney fires, throw handfuls of dust up opening below flames. Save fire loss and water damage. Requires no care or attention. Will not Freeze. Will not deteriorate with age. Will not explode. No poisonous fumes.”
   Note that last line: No poisonous fumes. According to the Fire Grenades website, there were over 200 companies producing these dry powder, tubular fire extinguishers. Perhaps those companies knew something that in our new century, we should heed?
   According to authors Bob and Phoebe Adams, “In early England, the people turned to the grenade, which was a bottle made of thin and fragile glass that was designed to be thrown on the fire and to break easily and spew the contents at the base of the fire and quench the flames. Because of this unique use, the grenades were designed to be light and easily handled. These grenades were to be found in homes, hotels, factories, schools, trains and other commercial buildings around the turn of the century.
   Basically, the fire grenade works by robbing the fire of its oxygen. Various fluids have been used in the grenade and the most effective was found to be carbon tetrachloride. In more recent years, it has been found that the carbon tet, when inhaled, can cause many respiratory problems. CAUTION IS SUGGESTED IN HANDLING ANY OF THE FIRE GRENADES.
   The grenades are very collectible as they were made in many colors and many unique shapes and patterns… Many grenades are embossed with the name of the manufacturer such as Harden's, Hayward's, Babcock, Harkness, Little Giant, Comet, to name a few.”
   According to the Agency for Toxic Substances in Georgia, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (see online at http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts30.html ) “Carbon tetrachloride is a manufactured compound that does not occur naturally. It's a clear liquid with a sweet smell that can be detected at low levels.”
   Years ago, it was used in the production of refrigeration fluid and propellants for aerosol cans, as a pesticide, as a cleaning fluid/degreasing agent at dry cleaners, and in fire extinguishers. Because of its harmful effects, these uses are now banned.
   In the Toxicological Profile for Carbon tetrachloride, May 1994, by the Agency for Toxic Substances, Carbon tetrachloride can enter your body through your lungs if you breathe air containing it or it can also pass through the skin into the body. When you inhale carbon tetrachloride, over 30-40% of what you inhale enters your body, where most of it temporarily accumulates in body fat.
   This report stated: “Most information on the health effects of carbon tetrachloride in humans comes from cases where people have been exposed to relatively high levels of carbon tetrachloride, either only once or for a short period of time.”
   Your liver and kidneys, as well as your brain, are particularly susceptible to carbon tetrachloride. Kidney failure is the primary cause of death “in people who died after very high exposure to carbon tetrachloride.”
   The report goes on to state: “Fortunately, if injuries to the liver and kidney are not too severe, these effects disappear after exposure stops. This is because both organs can repair damaged cells … After exposure to high levels of carbon tetrachloride, the nervous system, including the brain, is affected. Such exposure can be fatal. The immediate effects are usually signs of intoxication, including headache, dizziness, and sleepiness perhaps accompanied by nausea and vomiting. These effects usually disappear within a day or two after exposure stops.”
   Folks, I don’t know about you, but after reading these warnings, that was enough for me. If you wish to collect these items, we urge you to learn all you can about them and how to store them. Shop owners and dealers should take extra caution to display these items with the utmost care. According to Rich Siegal, head of The Central New Hampshire Hazardous Materials Team (HazMat), who responded to the recent accidental breakage of one of these glass grenades at a NH group shop, “Collectors and shops should store these items out of the reach of children and animals, preferably in a padded, Styrofoam box.”
   Siegal said while some of the grenades are clearly marked with their contents, many others are not. “I’d be leery of any unmarked ball,” he added, saying “they can be pretty potent, and if Carbon tetrachloride is heated, it produces Phosgene Gas, which can be deadly.” Seigal mentioned that not only was there a health danger, but the potential for possible liability issues if a shop owner had dangerous items on consignment in their shop.
   According to Paul Romano, a knowledgeable fire memorabilia dealer in Massachusetts, “Glass grenades did contain Carbon Tet., most commonly those named “Red Comet” brand. These are later, and are very
common compared to the earlier, more collectible variety. The earlier grenades were most commonly filled with a solution of salt and water. The most common brand was Hayward’s though there were many other makers. Some were marked for railroad use, the “rolling pin” style you mentioned was also made for railroad use--I think the PRR, but I’m not sure. I have avoided handling glass grenades because of their fragile nature and the occasionally hazardous contents,” Romano added.
   While some collectors are “drilling” out a hole in the cement-ended grenades and emptying the contents (“NOT RECOMMENDED!” said Seigal), one auctioneer who specializes in fire memorabilia said drilling and emptying a grenade renders it worth “half” the amount it would normally bring from a collector, as they want them intact. (do a search on eBay for Glass Fire Grenades, and you’ll see what we mean).
   Deputy Chief Seigal, who does not collect fire grenades, mentioned that many of his colleagues do collect the glass extinguishers. He said that about the only safe way to dispose of the contents was to dispose of the entire grenade  (DO NOT! Put them in the rubbish). Seigal recommended that anyone who has these items and wishes to get rid of them should wait until their local town or community has a Hazardous Waste Pick-up Day (for example, Belmont holds one the last Saturday in July), when residents can bring old batteries, paint, paint thinner, and other toxic materials.
   Seigal and several grenade collectors with whom we spoke mentioned that many people today in the general populace do not know what these pretty glass containers are, particularly the unmarked ones. Seigal mentioned that they can still be found in old buildings and factories, and were common years ago in church basements, mounted on a wall in a metal bracket near the old furnace!