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Is your dryer a fire hazard?
What you need to know about preventing fires
Dateline NBC's Lea Thompson reports on the fire hazards posed by clothes dryers.

April 9 —  Next time you’re about to leave your home, ask yourself a simple question: is there any appliance inside the house that’s still running, one that shouldn’t be on? As “Dateline” discovered, a familiar fixture of almost every home could be a real fire hazard, even if you think you’re using it properly. Chief Consumer Correspondent Lea Thompson reports.

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Image: Lee Thompson

       FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS, New Hampshire Deputy Chief Stephen Goldsmith has been fighting all sorts of fires. But there is one fire — a house fire more than two years ago — that he remembers most. Why? Because that house was his own!
       “The roads were blocked off. There were a lot of firefighters, a lot of trucks. Still a lot of smoke billowing in from the eaves in the structure of the house,” Goldsmith remembers.
       In less than an hour, his home was gutted by fire. At the time, he knew his wife and children were safe, but he sensed the family had lost just about everything else. “We had three dogs. And I was hoping that the three dogs had gotten out. But the three dogs did not get out,” says Goldsmith.
       The fire chief was in for another shock when investigators determined the fire’s source — the clothes dryer.
       According to national estimates, 14,500 dryers catch fire every year, killing 10 people. Two years ago, a dryer fire at an Alabama day care center claimed several children. And as our “Dateline” investigation revealed, dryer fires start easier and spread faster than most people might think.
“Most people leave their home without even giving a thought that the dryer’s on. My wife knew the dryer was on.”
       “Most people leave their home without even giving a thought that the dryer’s on,” says Goldsmith. “My wife knew the dryer was on.”
        In Goldsmith’s fire, investigators assumed a short in a wire had caused a spark. The bigger question was what fueled the fire? Investigators finally came to the conclusion it was something so tiny even they had overlooked it — lint.
       Don Bliss of the National Association of State Fire Marshals says lint accumulates very quickly and is extremely combustible. It ignites easily and fires spread in a flash. In fact, fire officials believe lint is a leading reason dryer fires become so destructive. They say if lint gets into the machine’s heating element, it can be the very thing that sparks and fuels a fire. How so? “Dateline” decided to find out.
       Our first stop: a well-respected laboratory in Cortland, New York. With the help of laboratory engineers, we drill holes in a dryer and slip tiny cameras inside. Next, the lab’s engineers blow lint into the dryer’s heater. Fire officials and engineers tell us lint allowed to build up behind a dryer for years or even months can be blown into a dryer’s vents and then its heater. So the engineers let the lint fly. Then we put the doors back on and turn on the machine.
Within seconds the back of the dryer is on fire, blowing out our cameras and the dryer’s parts.

       In just 20 seconds we see a piece of burning lint flash through the drum. But it goes out — nothing catches fire. Ten seconds later, another scrap of lint burns inside the heating element, igniting more lint. Within seconds the back of the dryer is on fire, blowing out our cameras and the dryer’s parts. Very soon, flames are spreading out the back of the machine. Smoke is filling the room, but with nothing inside the lab to ignite, the fire burns itself out. The dryer; however, is destroyed.
       Imagine what could have happened if this fire had started in your home? “That small amount of flame that escaped from the back of the dryer would have ignited anything nearby,” says Fire Marshall Bliss. “You very definitely would have had a serious fire in that situation in the average home.”
       And chances are, says Bliss, one of the first things the burning lint will ignite is the dryer’s plastic hosing. Homeowners often use it when installing their machines and it’s highly flammable. Bliss says aluminum hosing is much safer. Even the industry agrees. We went back to the lab to see.
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       We put an open flame to two kinds of aluminum hosings — corrugated and flat — and after more than a minute, neither one catches fire. Compare that to the plastic hosing, which flames in just 12 seconds. For Bliss the solution is clear: get rid of plastic hosing — and lint — the cause of so much destruction.
       Some people think even more should be done. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is so concerned about lint fires, it issued a report that said devices should be added to machines that “...shut down the dryer when the airflow is obstructed.”
Dryer safety tips
Visit the CPSC's website for information about how to use your dryer safely

       But the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers’ Joe McGuire says most dryers are already designed to shut off if the machine gets too hot. Besides, he says, lint itself really can’t fuel a fire. He questions whether more safety features are needed.
       “What you want to make sure you don’t do is mandate some sort of technology fix that doesn’t really get at a primary cause for safety, yet does add cost to the consumer,” says McGuire.
       He suggests consumers should take more responsibility — making sure to keep lint away from dryer vents.
       The Goldsmiths sure do. They say they now take every precaution to keep their new home safe and lint free, although they admit that is sometimes easier said than done. In fact, when we asked Stephen to pull his dryer out, there it was: lint.
       Fire officials say you really need to make every effort to remove lint. Vacuum behind the machine whenever you’re house-cleaning, don’t let lint pile up on the screen, and clean it after each load.
       And pay attention to when your dryer is on — another hard lesson the Goldsmiths learned. “My wife won’t leave the house now with anything running,” says Stephen.
       Bottom line, says Bliss, is don’t take anything for granted. “Most people don’t think of the dryer as a dangerous appliance,” he says. “It’s not something you think about when it comes to fire. But it’ll spread smoke throughout the house which will prevent people from getting out. You can get a very serious fire very quickly.”
       Fire officials say you should also be aware of something else: if it’s suddenly taking way too long for your dryer to dry your clothes. They say that could be a sign that a buildup of lint — inside the machine — is preventing hot air from getting into the dryer’s drum — another fire hazard and a sign that it may be time to get a new machine.

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