A spate of catastrophic fires caused by self-combusting tea towels has driven commercial insurer NFU Mutual to advise publicans, restaurateurs and hoteliers to exercise caution when handling, washing and tumble-drying tea towels.

The little-known ‘self-combusting tea-towel’ phenomenon occurs when remains of oil and fat contaminate fabrics made of natural fibres. The remaining oil can undergo a chemical reaction with oxygen in the air, which releases heat, and in certain circumstances this can lead to the spontaneous ignition of the fabric initially as a smouldering process. The reaction is even more likely when combined with heat such as that from tumble drying – especially when removed from the dryer and left in a pile, which offers perfect conditions of thermal insulation for the heat to thrive -and also if left near a heat source. Oxidising detergent chemicals such as peroxide in stain remover can also cause the chemical oxidising reaction, with or without heat.

Darren Seward, hospitality specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “Although 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. The danger is particularly high if the tumbledrying 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 a pile of 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.”

The Wheatsheaf in Rutland suffered severe fire and smoke damage after a blaze was caused by self-combusting tea towels. After interrupting the tumble-drying cycle of tea towels the tenant left a number of very warm tea towels in the bottom of the dryer drum. The first floor was ablaze 90 minutes later, and the public house masked in smoke resulting in the business being closed for over six months.

Advice for caterers: There have been several recent fires caused by tumble dried laundry self-igniting due to residues of cooking oils etc. remaining. To prevent such an ignition you should:

  • Ensure wash temperatures and detergents are suitable for the optimum removal of oil based contaminants
  • Allow laundry to complete the cooling cycle in the tumble dryer
  • Remove the laundry from the tumble dryer as soon as the cooling down cycle has expired
  • Shake out laundry to ventilate before folding or place garments on hangers
  • Clean filters, remove fluff, lint and debris from dryers and keep them regularly maintained
  • Ensure the service schedule is followed

Fire and Rescue Service guidance also states you shouldn’t:

  • Place warm, damp laundry in polythene bags or plastic containers/baskets or in poorly ventilated areas
  • Leave freshly laundered fabrics stacked overnight
  • Remove laundry from the tumble dryer before completing the cooling cycle

This information should ideally be displayed above the tumble dryer and relayed to all employees who have a responsibility for cleaning the laundry.