Self-combusting tea towels

Warning on the dangers of 'self-combusting' tea towels that 'burn pubs to the ground'

By Helen Gilbert

- Last updated on GMT

Fire damage caused by self-combusting tea towels at The Wheatsheaf in Rutland
Fire damage caused by self-combusting tea towels at The Wheatsheaf in Rutland
Publicans are being urged to review the way they wash tea towels after self-combustion caused a string of disastrous pub fires.

The advice, issued by insurance provider NFU Mutual, calls on pubs to wash cloths at high temperatures to completely remove oil and fat which can remain in the natural fibres and chemically react with oxygen in the air to release heat, resulting in spontaneous ignition. 

'Tea towels soaked in stain remover carry a risk of self-heating'

It also warns against soaking tea towels in stain remover containing chemicals, such as peroxide, without washing immediately as this can also carry a risk of self-heating. 

The guidance comes on the back of a number of pub fires sparked by spontaneously-combusting material. 

In 2015, the Unicorn’s Head in Langar, Nottinghamshire was closed for 12 months due to extensive fire damage caused by tea towels that had been soaked in stain remover before being washed the following day. 

'Pub forced to close for six months'

The Wheatsheaf in Rutland also suffered severe fire and smoke damage after a blaze was caused when very warm tea towels were left in the bottom of a dryer drum after a cycle was interrupted. 

Within 90 minutes these had self-combusted and the first floor was ablaze, NFU Mutual said, forcing the pub to close for at least six months. 

Darren Seward, hospitality specialist at NFU Mutual, warned that though 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. 

'Danger if tumble-drying cycle interrupted'

“The danger is particularly high if the tumble-drying cycle is interrupted, as typically the final few minutes will tumble without heat and allow the tea towels to cool down.

“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 dirty tea towels in a pile 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.”

Seward added that tea towels, once removed from a tumble dryer, should be aired rather than folded or placed in a bag. 

A similar incident nearly occurred at Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey's pub the Plume of Feathers.

The actor recently issued a warning to the trade​ about the dangers of exploding tea towels.

Related topics: Health & safety

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