The earliest grenade-type fire extinguishers were invented in the late 1800s were thrown at the flames. Made of clear or colored glass, these extinguishers usually have a fancy cut-glass, round ball-shaped body, with a tall neck and contained a harmless salt water and brine solution. "Harden" or "Hayward" were the most common brand names.
On the other hand, the smaller glass "light bulbed" shaped grenades (such as the one you describe), made from 1920 to 1960s contain "Carbon Tetrachloride." These extinguishers were usually red in color (or with red liquid inside), and usually carried the brand names of either "Red Comet," or "Shure-Stop." Also made during the 1920s through 1960s were numerous size and shaped models of metal fire extinguishers that also contained Carbon Tetrachloride as the firefighting agent.
Questions about what do with these extinguishers (and their contents) have been raised a number of times. Should an extinguisher be emptied? How dangerous are the contents? What should be done with them?
While carbon-tet IS classified as a HAZARDOUS MATERIAL, (and is banned from production). It is a known carcinogen, but the primary danger is when the chemical reacts with heat/fire. Under intense heat, toxic fumes are formed that smother the flames and deprive the air of oxygen. I have never heard of someone becoming ill because of a recent leak/spill, but I would use caution. If the glass has remained intact all these years, it is recommended you leave it alone.
Some of the "light bulbed shaped" glass extinguishers have a spring release mechanism that would automatically break the glass and releases the contents in case of fire. If you find one of these, you should secure/disable that spring release to prevent accidental breakage. When dealing with the other (metal) fire extinguishers with carbon-tet, it is advisable to empty the contents by dumping them outside in a WELL ventilated area and letting the chemical evaporate.
If a glass extinguisher (with carbon-tet) does accidentally break/leak, I would leave the room and ventilate the area. After the fumes subside, any liquid that has not evaporated should be wiped up using rubber gloves and paper towels.
Although carbon-tet IS indeed dangerous, if you respect the extinguisher and its contents, and with a little caution and common sense steps taken to prevent accidental breakage or release, you should be safe.
- David - David Lewis, the Fire Museum Network's Web Guy DLewisARFM@aol.com
* DISCLAIMER -- I am not a chemist nor do I want to play one here on the Internet, (I nearly failed Chemistry in High School). My comments are based on personal experience, talking with others, and culled from various posts to the Fire Museum Network Discussion Board over the past few years, and common sense.
I am from Kirkland Heritage Society in Kirkland, Wa. We have a fire grenade that is on loan from one of our board members. It is currently in a display case, but not secure. I.E. it can roll around... more
Of course there is no way of absolutely securing it against all possible movement, especially something like an earthquake. However, craft stores have styrofoam rings in various diameters that might... more