What Does Flammable Mean?

The word ‘flammable’ applies to any substance, material, or object that burns quickly. While almost every material on earth will burn if it gets hot enough, many objects, like most types of metal, can’t be made hot sufficiently by everyday means of ignition. Flammable materials are particularly vulnerable because of the types of particles that they’re made up of. Fire needs three things to start and to keep burning: heat, fuel, and oxygen (which can be found in the air), which are commonly referred to as the Fire Triangle. Most flammable materials contain carbon particles, which is a perfect fuel for fires because it degrades when exposed to heat. As the material is heated, the carbon ignites and becomes fuel for the fire, spreading further through the material, getting hotter and more prominent as it goes until it is completely consumed.

How can fires be stopped?

If a fire runs out of either fuel or oxygen or is cooled down, it’ll go out, so modern firefighters have developed many techniques for putting out fires that take away one or both of these essential resources. Water reduces the temperature of some fires to a level where the chemical reactions of burning or combustion can’t occur. Fire extinguishers release a directed jet of Carbon Dioxide, helping to lower the Oxygen level in the air around the fire and starving it of the oxygen it needs to burn. Fire blankets work similarly, blocking the fire and preventing it from consuming oxygen in the air outside the veil. However, sometimes the only way to stop a fire is by removing fuel. During the Excellent Fire of London in 1666, the fire was so vast and hot that the only way to stop it was to starve it of more fuel. People used massive hooks to tear down wooden houses in the crowded streets or even used gunpowder to blow up homes in the middle of long rows of houses. Although it seemed like a crazy idea because the fire couldn’t cross the gaps where the homes used to be, it was unable to spread further, and after it had consumed entirely the homes that were already on fire, it had no more fuel and gradually went out. It’s hard to say, but these desperate measures likely prevented the fire from destroying the entire city! m

What’s the Difference Between Flammable and Inflammable?

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no difference between flammable and inflammable. Both words derive from the Latin inflammable, meaning “to cause to catch fire.” Instead of invalidating the subject word as it does in English (insufficient, inadequate), in Latin, the -in prefix means ‘to cause.’ So, rather than the strangers some people take them for, the words flammable and inflammable are non-identical twins.

Objects that are incapable of burning are known as ‘non-flammable.’

10 Examples of Flammable Materials at Home

Although the risk of fires caused by flammable materials at home can be dangerous, we also need them for a wide range of different reasons, from cooking our food to fuelling our cars and lighting up our cities! Here’s a list of some of the most common flammable materials that you can find in and around the home:

  • Deodorant – while stick deodorant is relatively stable, spray-on deodorant is highly flammable for a few reasons. First, the can uses compressed gas to disperse the particles of deodorant so all the particles are very close together, making it easy for a fire to spread between them. Secondly, the gas carries thousands of tiny particles – while each particle will burn up extremely fast, there are so many of them that it can still cause a big fire. Finally, most spray-on deodorants have alcohol as an ingredient, so the particles are ideal fuel. Because of this, even a tiny spark near a freshly sprayed cloud of deodorant can set off a massive firey explosion.
  • Paper – paper is made up of compressed and dried tree pulp. Wood, the root material, is full of carbon particles, making it an excellent fuel for the fire, and paper has even less water in it to slow the combustion rate, so it’s very explosive.
  • Petrol – although this one might seem a little strange, cars run on combustion engines that work by slowing burning petrol in a controlled way to release energy that powers the movement. So not only is petrol extremely flammable, we need it to be!
  • Cooking Oil – cooking oil contains a lot of carbon from the seeds or vegetables that were crushed to release the substance, so it includes a lot of fuel that ignites easily when directly exposed to heat.
  • Laundry Detergent – powder-based laundry detergent can be flammable due to the easy dispersal of powder into the air and volatile chemical particles in the powder.
  • Hand Sanitizer – hand sanitizer is primarily made of alcohol since it kills germs very effectively, but it’s also very flammable if exposed to intense heat or a direct flame.
  • Nail Polish – nail polish contains a highly reactive chemical called acetone that contains many fuel-rich particles. However, it’s only dangerous when wet; the acetone dissolves once the nail polish has dried, so it’s perfectly safe to use nail polish as long as you’re careful where you store the bottles!
  • Plastic – although it’s not extremely easy to get plastics hot enough to burn, they’re made up of carbon-rich particles, so when they catch fire, they can be very dangerous. They also release carbon-rich gases as they burn, helping to sustain and spread the fire even further.
  • Cotton – cotton is flammable for the same reason as paper: it’s made up of compressed and dried-out plant matter, so it contains a lot of carbon-rich fuel for fire.
  • Alcohol – alcohol can be found in various household products, ranging from cleaning products to drinks. This group of chemicals releases hydrocarbon vapors that are ideal fuel for fires, so when allowed to mix with the air and exposed to heat, they can burn very intensely. In addition, the more “pure” alcohol in the product, the more explosive the product becomes – beer is far less flammable than alcohol-based disinfectants, for example.

3 Things You Wouldn’t Expect to Be Flammable

  • Flour. It’s hard to believe, but that bag of flour at the back of your cupboard harbors a dark secret. When flour escapes and hangs in the air – even in small quantities – it becomes flammable. The minuscule grains burn when exposed to an ignition source and are more than capable of igniting others around them in a chain reaction that can be incredibly dangerous. For example, in 1878, 14 people were killed by a large flour dust explosion at a Minnesota flour mill.
  • Oranges. Orange peel contains a highly flammable natural oil called Limonene. This substance gives the rind its distinctive bitter taste and protects the fruit from insects and mold. But, when exposed to a flame, it will ignite.
  • Ping Pong Balls. Ping-pong balls are made of concentrated celluloid, which is highly flammable. So, think twice next time you’re ready to unleash that backhand; the slightest spark could see that little white ball go up in smoke!
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