East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service logo
East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service logo

Cutlery in a dishwasher

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Fire damaged cutlery

Fire damaged cutlery

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Showing where the knife became jammed

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The fire damaged plastic basket

The fire damaged plastic basket

How this fire happened

A dishwasher was loaded with 1950s vintage silver cutlery with handles that were believed to be made of a Bakelite-type material.

One of the knives fell out of the dishwasher's cutlery basket and became jammed between the cutlery basket, water spray rotor and heating element.

The knife jammed the rotor which restricted the flow of water to the dishwasher.

The combustible handle of the knife came in to direct contact with the dishwasher's heating element and soon caught fire.

The flames then spread to the handles of the remaining cutlery in the plastic cutlery basket and the basket itself.

The occupant loaded the dishwasher and then went to another part of their house.

Approximately five to ten minutes later the occupant was alerted to the fire by a smoke alarm and was able to get out of the property and call 999.

The fire service arrived to find a localised fire within the dishwasher that generated a large volume of smoke, sufficient to fill the kitchen.

As can be seen from the photographs opposite, the highly flammable handles of several items of this cutlery had burnt way completely.

Fortunately this fire was discovered early on, as it may have had the potential to have developed further.

The effect it had

"My first thought was I couldn't believe it.

"I'd been using both the cutlery and this dishwasher for four to five years with no problems.

"I was absolutely shocked.

I was also worried because the smoke wasn't ordinary smoke but very thick, black and acrid."

Safety message

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Fit a smoke alarm

Again this incident serves to underline just how important it is to have working smoke alarms in your home.

This was another fire where smoke alarms alerted the occupier to a fire.

Had they not been fitted then the fire and smoke could have continued to develop undetected and become even more serious.

Further information

From The Canadian Conservation Institute



07 January 2013

Following further research, it has been highlighted that Cellulose Nitrate Plastic was commonly used to make table knife handles up to the 1950's. This material was also used in cellulose nitrate or celluloid films.

Cellulose Nitrate Plastic is very combustible and begins to break down at temperatures as low as 38c; warmth and humidity (moisture) accelerate this decomposition. Dishwashers provide the ideal environment for celluloid plastic to deteriorate and self-ignite resulting from an exothermic reaction within the material.

Water does not easily extinguish it as it contains its own oxygen!

Resulting fumes are very poisonous, flammable and contain Carbon Monoxide, Nitric Acid & Hydrocyanic Acid.

It is possible that these vintage 1950's knives were made with Cellulose Nitrate Plastic and from the properties of the material it can be seen why placing them in a dishwasher was hazardous!

Do you have a similar story?

Finally, we would be interested to hear from you if you have had a similar experience to the fire detailed above, or would like to raise any related matters or even just generally comment on how useful you found our Black Museum.

Please send us your details and a comments via our on-line feedback form.


This case study was contributed by:

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Latest Update :
21 September 2020
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