Public Health

Readdressing the Hazards of Fire Extinguisher Use (Opinion)

When researching the medical effects of a dry chemical fire extinguisher exposure on a patient, critical analysis must be performed before stating with any degree of confidence that it is dangerous.

by Patrick Jessee / September 6, 2011

After reading Jon Taluba’s article, Extinguish or Evacuate, in the January/February edition of Emergency Management, I felt obligated to write a response to a number of the claims he made regarding the hazards of fire extinguisher usage. As a firefighter with an extensive scientific background and understanding of toxicology, I felt that the message of the article was unfairly biased against their use and portrayed a great deal of information inaccurately.

When researching the medical effects of a dry chemical fire extinguisher exposure on a patient, critical analysis must be performed before stating with any degree of confidence that it is dangerous. First, the chemical composition must be known. Most current fire extinguishers are composed of inert chemicals like sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate or monoammonium phosphate. 

Although any good toxicologist will state that anything is toxic at a high-enough dosage (including water) these chemicals are easily handled by the body and are relatively nontoxic, even in the case of an acute high-dose exposure. The inert substances used in most fire extinguishers and the relatively nontoxic nature of these compounds is likely why the Journal of Toxicology does not report many deaths. And the nature of the injuries requiring hospitalization was not described by Taluba, so it is possible that these victims had other complicating injuries or pre-existing medical conditions.

Any substances that are designed to be aerosolized are, by nature, a concern when it comes to respiratory exposure, including fire extinguishers. Dry chemical extinguishing agents aren’t easily water soluble and are also relatively large in size. Any substance, regardless of its composition, will cause a respiratory complication if inhaled into the airways, including fire extinguishing agents. 

The sole patient that was cited for Taluba’s argument was a trapped, traumatically injured man, who was unable to move while having the dry chemical extinguisher used on him by untrained professionals. He may or may not have been able to protect his airway or even stay conscious. This situation would rarely happen during a normal use of a dry chemical extinguisher by a health-care provider, trained or untrained.

Taluba correctly lists the steps to deal with a small fire, beginning with evacuation of the immediate area and the PASS acronym (Pull out the pin, Aim at the base standing away from the fire, Squeeze the handle and Sweep at the base of the fire). The person operating the extinguisher also should consider the size of the fire and if he can effectively extinguish or contain it with a single extinguisher. While it is true that a health-care provider may not be able to deduce if a fire is still smoldering, he may be able to extinguish or control a fire prior to a fire department response.   

Writing this article using extenuating case studies and misleading statements to convey an opinion as factual was irresponsible and inflammatory in order to create Taluba’s “extensive controversy.” Instead of creating a blanket statement that dry chemical extinguishers are hazardous, there should be recommendations to increase training for the proper use of fire extinguishers and how to size up a fire to determine if it can be handled by a dry chemical fire extinguisher. The threat from smoke and fire if left unchecked is significantly higher than the minimal hazards presented by using dry chemical extinguishers, which is supported by the lack of cases cited in journal articles. The combination of effective fire detection and protection systems, fire extinguishers and proper training is more than sufficient to reduce any risks associated with both fire and dry chemical extinguishers.

Patrick Jessee is a firefighter with the Chicago Fire Department. His opinion is his own and does not reflect that of the Chicago Fire Department.