Toxins in Textiles

Unlike garment fires, where the primary hazard is heat release, building fires can generate both heat and toxic gasses. Often the primary human hazard is smoke and toxic gases. When cellulosic materials, either textiles or wood products, are burned the only gases formed are CO, (carbon monoxide), CO2(carbon dioxide) and H2O (water).

Although carbon dioxide can cause suffocation, the dangerous material is carbon monoxide, which poisons the bloodstream in much the same way as cyanide. The relative amounts of CO and CO2produced in a fire depend primarily on the amount of oxygen present. Well ventilated fires produce mostly CO2. However, in well-developed building fires, there is almost always a shortage of oxygen and larger amounts of the much more toxic CO are produced.

Some synthetic fibres, such as polyester, also produce these three gases when burned. Other fibres, such as polyamides (nylon) or acrylics, contain nitrogen and are thus theoretically capable of producing other toxic gases during burning. While small-scale tests of nitrogen-containing textiles frequently show the evolution of toxic materials, such as HCN (hydrogen cyanide), these gases are probably not a major factor in real fire situations.