Recently a colleague forwarded to me a string of emails about a potential danger lurking in museum collections, fire grenades. These items were sold from the 1870s until the 1950s and were used to put out a small fire in an enclosed area quickly. The idea was to throw the glass bottle at the base of the fire, where it would shatter and the contents would smother the fire. Early versions were filled with salt water, and later the chemical of choice was carbon tetrachloride.
I was familiar with these beauties; in fact I think I put the number on the bottom of the red one years ago during processing. We knew at the time that the contents of the grenade were still intact, but we did not know what they were. As it turns out, carbon tetrachloride is not a nice chemical to have around. According to the EPA:
The primary effects of carbon tetrachloride in humans are on the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system (CNS). Human symptoms of acute (short-term) inhalation and oral exposures to carbon tetrachloride include headache, weakness, lethargy, nausea, and vomiting. Acute exposures to higher levels and chronic (long-term) inhalation or oral exposure to carbon tetrachloride produces liver and kidney damage in humans.
At the NC Museum of History, we decided that we would deaccession these items from our collection because we did not have the proper facilities to store them. Several people have suggested trying to remove the contents in order to keep the glass bottles in the collection, but that is not a good idea. Even if you are successful in not breaking the fragile glass, how would you safely handle and dispose of the dangerous carbon tetrachloride? Our best advice is to seek out someone qualified to handle hazardous materials, like your county waste disposal director and see what options you have.
You can find additional information in these articles and more images of different types.
The good news is that new 3-D printing technologies may allow museums to tell this interesting story without the threat of dangerous chemicals.