Protecting Yourself While at the Pump

Protecting Yourself While at the Pump

Filling station safety tips
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Friends are warning friends all over the Internet to dock their cell phones or risk becoming a fireball at the gas pump. Yet there has never been one recorded incident of a cell phone causing a fire at a gas station. Those warnings would be far more useful if they admonished friends to protect themselves against static electricity, which has ignited at least 150 fires at gas pumps according to the American Petroleum Institute. Just this month in Albany, Georgia, the Associated Press reported that a hair stylist was pumping gas into her car when her hair burst into flames. Her husband, Camilla firefighter Lt. Bill Marshall said the fire was probably caused by static electricity from his wife's hair rubbing against her clothes.

The Culprit

Static electricity may occur when a person filling their tank leaves the nozzle, gets back in their vehicle and rubs against the seats. When they return to the pump after refueling is complete, the built up static may discharge at the fill point, causing a brief flash fire with gasoline refueling vapors. To guard against this hazard, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) offers gas pump safety tips:

Warnings

Do not get back in the car while refueling. If you must get back in the car, always touch a metal part of the vehicle such as the door or other metal surface away from the gas fill point before returning to the refueling area. Touching metal reduces the build up of static electricity and minimizes the likelihood of fire. Women should be extremely careful since 75 percent of the victims of gas pump static electricity fires are women who have gone back into their cars to tend to children, or to get their purse.

Do not smoke, light matches or lighters while refueling.

Turn off the engine during refueling.

Put the vehicle in park, set the emergency brake, Do not over fill or top-off your vehicle tank which can cause gasoline spillage.

When putting gasoline into a container, use only an approved portable container and place it on the ground when refueling to avoid a possible static electricity ignition of fuel vapors.

Containers, according to the API, should never be filled while inside a vehicle or its trunk, the bed of a pickup truck or the floor of the trailer.

If a fire starts while you're refueling, don't remove the nozzle from the vehicle or try to stop the flow of gasoline. Immediately leave the area and call for help.

API Findings

Although the American Petroleum Institute, which monitors such things, says there is not one confirmed instance of a cell phone causing a fire at a gas station, cell phone manufacturers and gas companies both warn against using cell phones while refueling. When Exxon began mailing out information and decals to its 8,500 service stations in the U.S. in June, 1999, it told CNN that the risk of explosion is "extremely unlikely," but decided to err on the side of safety. So although there has never been a gas station fire that was caused by a cell phone, it is always better to be safe than sorry. The internet warnings often quote an explosion in Adelaide, Australia that the urban legend says was caused by a mobile phone. But according to the Adelaide fire department investigation, the explosion occurred after a tanker finished pumping fuel into an underground diesel tank. The direct cause was static electricity igniting a flammable mixture of fuel vapors and air which had accumulated in the emptied tanker compartment.

Other Studies

A study by the University of Oklahoma Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility (August 2001) concluded that "...research into the cell phone-gas station issue provided virtually no evidence to suggest that cell phones pose a hazard at gas stations...While it may be theoretically possible for a spark from a cell phone battery to ignite gas vapor under very precise conditions, the historical evidence does not support the need for further research." Exponent Failure Analysis Associates in Menlo Park, California said in a 1999 study that "...the use of a cell phone at a gasoline filling station under normal operating conditions presents a negligible hazard and that the likelihood of such an accident under any conditions is very remote."

In our litigious society that negligible hazard means that cell phone companies and gasoline stations will still warn of the danger in mixing cell phones and gas pumps. In the meantime, the real enemy is static electricity and consumers need to practice the simple precautions outlined above each time they fill up at the pump. And by the way, there is no giant alligator in the New York sewer system.

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