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  #1  
Old 28 May 2009, 07:01 PM
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Flame Spontaneous combustion of kitty litter

Comment: Not sure about the origin of this email sent to me on 5/28/09:

On May 24th my house caught on fire. The fire marshal had told us it was
started by cat litter in our trash. We thought he was nuts. We have had
cats for years and never had a problem.

The fire investigator, hired by my insurance company, confirmed that our
house fire was started by the cat litter in our trash. Spontaneous
combustion is want it is labeled. He told us the best thing to do is buy
a metal trash can, with lid, and keep it separate from the rest of the
trash. Please forward this to eveyone you know that has a cat. I would
hate to see anyone go though what we are right now.
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  #2  
Old 28 May 2009, 07:26 PM
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I am a certified fire and explosion investigator and can truthfully say this was not covered in class. A little Internet research shows that non-clay litters may be flammable and perhaps, maybe, might be suseptible to spontaneous combustion. Clay based litter is not flammable however. But if the kitty litter was used to soak up vegetable oil, then the resulting mixture can spontaneously combust. But without more research, I would say that normal clay based kitty litter with nothing more than kitty poop in it, will not spontaneously combust.

In the case of the original comment, I would say the following reasoning was used:
1) The origin of the fire was determined to be the trash can.
2) It was determined that the home owner does not smoke and had not emptied fire place ashes or other smoldering material into the trash can. Therefore, there was no obvious cause of ignition could be found. Both fire investigators have heard of kitty litter spontaneously igniting (which can happen when saturated with vegetable oils and not cat poop). Therefore that is what caused the fire.

Other possible causes of the fire in my opinion or in my wild guessing
Spontaneous combustion of a paper towel used to wipe up a vegetable oil spill.
Spontaneous combustion of rags used in finishing furniture with a vegetable oil such as linseed oil.
A lithium ion battery.
Or my number one guess, a teenager smoking who did not want Mom to find the cigarette.
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  #3  
Old 28 May 2009, 07:31 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by snopes View Post
He told us the best thing to do is buy
a metal trash can, with lid, and keep it separate from the rest of the
trash.
Surely that only helps after the litter has been discarded? What if spontaneous combustion strikes while the litter is in the litterbox?

FWOOOOOMFF meoooooow!
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  #4  
Old 28 May 2009, 07:45 PM
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Originally Posted by Lainie View Post
Surely that only helps after the litter has been discarded? What if spontaneous combustion strikes while the litter is in the litterbox?

FWOOOOOMFF meoooooow!
You get the inspiration a fried fast food restaurant - Unlucky Fried Kitten.
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  #5  
Old 28 May 2009, 08:03 PM
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Clay cat litter is the number one product for cleaning up motor oil spills. While, IMO, it would take an act of supreme idiocy to clean up a motor oil spill, and then not throw the litter-oil in an outside trashcan, I'm sure someone, somewhere, has thrown it away, inside.
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  #6  
Old 28 May 2009, 08:32 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RivkahChaya View Post
Clay cat litter is the number one product for cleaning up motor oil spills. While, IMO, it would take an act of supreme idiocy to clean up a motor oil spill, and then not throw the litter-oil in an outside trashcan, I'm sure someone, somewhere, has thrown it away, inside.
But motor oil won't spontaneously combust. It doesn't react with air, or anything else really, it doesn't generate heat and it isn't combustable in the normal sense. So motor oil (new or used) won't cause spontaneous combustion.

Like Richard said, there are relatively few things that will spontaneously combust. Motor oil isn't one of them.
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  #7  
Old 29 May 2009, 12:10 AM
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Around these parts you can get recycled paper pellets as kitty litter..

This i could see being plauged by spontaneous combustion.

I would also think if it was a disgarded smoke.. the marshel/investigator would find some sort of evidance.. don't those things not disappear ever?
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  #8  
Old 29 May 2009, 12:21 AM
RichardM RichardM is offline
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Not_Done_Living View Post
I would also think if it was a disgarded smoke.. the marshel/investigator would find some sort of evidance.. don't those things not disappear ever?
If it was a cigarette with a filter, you might find the filter. Or most likely not if it was a plastic trash can. The filter would most likely be wrapped in burned plastic and completely unrecognizable. I know that from searching a burned trash can for exactly that evidence. Of course, one piece of data does not a convincing argument make.
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  #9  
Old 29 May 2009, 05:03 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Eddylizard View Post
You get the inspiration a fried fast food restaurant - Unlucky Fried Kitten.
This almost caused me to snort a tostada through my nose. That would have hurt. A lot.

I vaguely remember hearing someone talk about certain types of clay kitty litter that could combust in very specific circumstances, but it's been a very long time and I don't remember any of the details. I know it wasn't in my arson classes - the only weird spontaneous combustion we talked about involved hay bales.
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  #10  
Old 29 May 2009, 05:46 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard View Post
I am a certified fire and explosion investigator and can truthfully say this was not covered in class. A little Internet research shows that non-clay litters may be flammable and perhaps, maybe, might be suseptible to spontaneous combustion. Clay based litter is not flammable however. But if the kitty litter was used to soak up vegetable oil, then the resulting mixture can spontaneously combust. But without more research, I would say that normal clay based kitty litter with nothing more than kitty poop in it, will not spontaneously combust.
I'm definitely forwarding this thread to the Mythbusters, because if anyone can explode kitty litter, it's them....
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  #11  
Old 29 May 2009, 12:54 PM
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I wrap used clay cat litter in nappy disposal bags and it stays in a plastic bin until it's time to put the rubbish out. I've never had a problem. I wonder if the investigators noticed fumes from the used cat litter and decided these could combust? Cat litter can develop a strong ammonia smell, but it doesn't seem very combustible

Quote:
The combustion of ammonia in air is very difficult in the absence of a catalyst (such as platinum gauze), as the temperature of the flame is usually lower than the ignition temperature of the ammonia-air mixture. The flammable range of ammonia in air is 16–25%.
but

Quote:
Ignition occurs when chlorine is passed into ammonia, forming nitrogen and hydrogen chloride; if ammonia is present in excess, then the highly explosive nitrogen trichloride (NCl3) is also formed.
so did the householder mix urine soaked cat litter with somethign that was giving off chlorine?

When you look at urea

Quote:
decomposes on heating above melting point, producing toxic gases, and reacts violently with strong oxidants, nitrites, inorganic chlorides, chlorites and perchlorates, causing fire and explosion hazard
the melting point, however, is 132.7–135 C - much hotter than my waste bin!!

A mix of nitric acid and urine is explosive. Ammonium nitrate is used as a blasting agent. The likelihood of having cat pee turn into an explosive in your rubbish bin is still pretty remote.

My other thought is that the contents of the bin simply heated up through decomposition until they smouldered and something caught light - much as piles of stable manure (horse manure/straw mixes) smoulder when the pile gets big enough. Perhaps pee-soaked wood/paper pellet litter could do the same and set light to dry paper/tissues etc in the bin?

I will add that the cat shelter where I've worked accumulated huge amounts of used cat litter - both clay-based and wood-based - and stored it in bin-bags in a cage (not in a sealed commercial-size waste bin) and have never had it catch light or explode.
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  #12  
Old 29 May 2009, 02:01 PM
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llewtrah, you certainly did more research than me.

Astra, I had one case where I had to find something in the electrical system that could have caused a fire. All the evidence I had was the bill of materials. No ground wires were evident there so maybe. But the building had just been filled with green hay bales.

I wonder if a dust explosion is possible with inorganic materials, i.e., can clay explode? Haven't had any coffee or time to think.
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  #13  
Old 29 May 2009, 03:08 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RichardM View Post
llewtrah, you certainly did more research than me.
Having worked in a situation where large amounts of used litter (clay type and wood type) were stored (either in bin bags in the rat-proof cage or in a large commercial/industrial dustbin with lockable lid) and never having had litter go up in smoke, I got curious about what chemicals were in there. And having done chemistry/biology/biochemistry in the past, I recalled that urine can be used to make explosives. I've seen stable manure/compost smouldering, albeit in large heaps. I just don't think it's very likely in a domestic bin, especially as it didn't happen in an industrial sized bin that was emptied weekly (plenty of time for decomposition of other stuff in the bin to start)

I'm guessing there were other things in the bin that haven't left traces e.g. a solvent-soaked rag from mopping up a spillage. Plenty of domestic products give off fumes. The question is the source of ignition - either temperature or chemical reaction.
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  #14  
Old 29 May 2009, 03:09 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RichardM View Post
can clay explode?
I think we'd have seen many more litter trays (and pet supplies stores) go BOOM over the last hundred years if that was likely
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  #15  
Old 29 May 2009, 03:17 PM
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From personal experience, I can testify that it is not a good idea to use liquid bleach to clean a really stinky cat box.

Because it generates chlorine gas, that's why.
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  #16  
Old 29 May 2009, 03:19 PM
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Hello Kitty

Am I the only person who imagined this was about a bunch of kittens that suddenly started burning?
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  #17  
Old 29 May 2009, 03:23 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Brad from Georgia View Post
From personal experience, I can testify that it is not a good idea to use liquid bleach to clean a really stinky cat box.

Because it generates chlorine gas, that's why.
And in a combined space the chlorine and the ammonia can react with possibly explosive results .....

I have cleaned badly fouled litter trays with undiluted sodium hypochlorite bleach, but only in the open air.

<--- the only spontaneously combusting thing that seems to fit this topic
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  #18  
Old 29 May 2009, 03:26 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Floater View Post
Am I the only person who imagined this was about a bunch of kittens that suddenly started burning?
Yes

When kitties sponteously combust it involves teeth, claws and a visit to be patched up in the hospital's casualty dept. IME, feral kitties are quicker to spontaneously combust in that manner than other kinds of kitty which is why I use a pair of welder's leather gauntlets for feral kitty call-outs, even for little feral kitties, because by 8 weeks old they can already rip up your hands.
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  #19  
Old 29 May 2009, 03:32 PM
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Quote:
Am I the only person who imagined this was about a bunch of kittens that suddenly started burning?
Actually, I was thinking that the cat somehow caused the fire (but then that wouldn't be spontaneous then, would it). My cat likes to dig and dig and dig and dig and then dig some more. I pictured the digging causing friction, causing a fire.
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  #20  
Old 29 May 2009, 05:35 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by llewtrah View Post
A mix of nitric acid and urine is explosive.
Mixing nitric acid with *anything* is going to produce noxious fumes and (for certain organics) an explosion. This is one of the reasons inorganic acids and organics (including organic acids) have to be stored separately in my lab; nitric acid vapor can react with (for example) acetic acid vapor and spontaneously explode.

Nitrates are usually strong oxidizers, and organic nitrates are especially reactive. Ammonium nitrate is very reactive but stable so long as it's not mixed with anything it can oxidize or otherwise react with. (Which is a significant part of its utility as half of an industrial blasting agent; it's safe to store so long as it's segregated from flammables.)

But forming nitrates is *very* difficult; if you have urea or ammonia you can't make urea nitrate or ammonium nitrate except by application of concentrated nitric acid, and outside a lab/industrial setting that's not easy to come by.
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