Sunday, May 02, 2010

Facts About Cell Phones and Fires at Gas Stations

The internet is full of misinformation. I essentially don't believe any email or Joe blow web site until I can verify it is true. There are plenty of web sites and emails that claim a cell phone can start a fire at the gas pump. They rarely have any facts like when and where did this happen and who investigated the incident. Even news stories can mislead us by running the story and not following up after an investigation (The New Palzt, New York fire see below). The info I have gathered on this subject, is based on scientific data and engineering analysis from reputable web sites. My sources include Motorola, Petroleum Equipment Institute, UNIVERSITY of OKLAHOMA SCHOOL of INDUSTRIAL ENGINEERING, FCC, Electro Static Discharge Journal, U.S. Department of the Interior and National Fire Protection Association. The following is basically a list of the web sites I used to write my first post on this subject. I made the list as a reference for my self, others may also find it useful. Each link is followed by an excerpt from the site.

2004 paper by Motorola
Motorola commissioned a review by an independent scientific, engineering and technical consulting firm: Exponent Failure Analysis Associates.

2004 paper by Motorola
There has been no documented incident anywhere in the world where the use of a mobile phone or portable radio was found to cause a fire or explosion in a gasoline station. There is no credible reason, based on technical evaluation, to believe that the use of these products poses any such hazard.

Petroleum Equipment Institute
PEI has investigated hundreds of refueling fires and flare-ups. We have not documented one single incident that was caused by a cellular telephone. Motorists start pumping gas then get back in their car once the tank is full they return to the nozzle with a fresh charge of static built up. They touch the gas pump nozzle which generates a spark. The spark ignites the gasoline vapors.

The University of Oaklahoma School of Industrial Engineering
(Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility)To conclude, research into the cell phone gas station issue provided virtually no evidence to suggest that cell phones pose a hazard at gas stations.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
The Federal Communications Commission says "Scientific testing, however has not established a dangerous link between wireless phones and fuel vapors".

2004 paper by Motorola
The U.K. Institute of Petroleum hosted a technical seminar on the issue in March 2003 and concluded there was no evidentiary or technical evidence to support the view that mobile phones pose a real risk. Other authoritative government agencies, industry groups and independent organizations have reached similar conclusions.

2004 paper by Motorola
In an April 2004 article the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) evaluated the necessary conditions for fuel ignition fuel-air mix, location of ignition source and energy content and concluded: "It is extremely unlikely that these conditions will occur simultaneously near a gas station. So we must conclude that, as cell phones are concerned, there is nothing to worry about.

2004 paper by Motorola
"Automobiles (which have numerous potential ignition sources) pose a greater ignition hazard," the report said. "Finally, other potential ignition sources are present, such as static discharge between a person and a vehicle."

2004 paper by Motorola
The use of mobile phones in gasoline stations long ago attained the status of "Internet hoax" or "urban legend" rumor and supposition accorded undue credence because of repeated mentions in the media, over the Internet and by email messages of incidents that defied verification and technical plausibility. In the end, public policies and consumer advice must be based not on speculation but fact. The facts in this case are clear. They are reinforced by extensive engineering analysis and suggest that there is no sound technical basis to prohibit the use of mobile phones in gasoline stations or single them out as hazards.

2004 paper by Motorola
Why does confusion persist? In part because of public misunderstanding. For example, mobile phones have been identified as suspected causes of accidents later found to have resulted from common discharges of static electricity. The Petroleum Industry Association states that its "Stop Static" campaign "has nothing to do cell phones what so ever." However, the mere presence of mobile phones in such situations contributed to continued speculation about their safe use.

WGN9 NEWS Chicago
You received this email from a well-intentioned friend. It's heading, "Mobile Phone Safety." The warning: Mobile phones can ignite fuel or fumes. The problem? It's absolutely not true."The truth is there has never been an explosion at a gas station from a cell phone," says David Sykuta, Illinois Petroleum Council. It's all an urban legend and nothing more than an internet hoax.

Electro Static Discharge Journal (ESD)
At the ESD Journal, we believe there is a very remote chance that a cell phone could start a fire but it would not be from its own static charges or its radio frequency signals. So many other things are much more likely to have caused the fire. The cell phone's radio signals do not have enough energy within them to start a fire. The cell phone does not generate static charges while being used.

2004 paper by Motorola
The Exponent and Oklahoma reviews agreed that the issue was whether a battery-related spark could create a source of ignition. The radio signals from the phone were not at issue.

(Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility) The cell phone gas station issue is centered on claims that the cell phone battery could spark and ignite gas fumes, or that the electronic impulses or electromagnetic (RF) waves emitted by the phones might trigger fire and/or explosions of gas fumes. These claims appear to be supported by some cell phone manufacturers, who print warnings in their cell phone instruction manuals. The warnings are outdated United Kingdom regulation from a time when phones operated at powers up to 20 watts, as opposed to the typical power of 0.6 watts today. Various experts have discounted the cell phone RF emissions as an ignition source, since the maximum output power of most phones currently in use makes it highly unlikely that the RF could induce sufficient power to ignite gas vapors. Hence, RF emissions can be eliminated as a potential hazard.

PEI News Letter
There was a fire at an ExxonMobil service station May 13 in New Paltz, New York, that has received a great amount of media attention because it was initially reported that the source of ignition was the motorist's cell phone that was answered while he was refueling. We talked with the New Paltz Fire Chief this week about the accident and he offered two new pieces of information about the fire that were discovered after a more extensive investigation of the scene and another interview with the victim. First, although the motorist said that he chocked the nozzle open with his gas cap (latch-open devices are not allowed at the station in New Paltz), no gas cap was found at the scene. However, a full Bic lighter was discovered two feet from where the car was fueled. Furthermore, the motorist later stated that he reentered his 1994 Isuzu Rodeo during the refueling process to look at his odometer and then slid out of the vehicle to complete the dispensing process immediately prior to answering his cell phone. "Upon further investigation of the accident scene and another discussion with the victim of the May 13 gasoline station fire in New Paltz, I have concluded the source of ignition was from some source other than the cell phone the motorist was carrying. Although we will probably never know for sure, the source of ignition was most likely static discharge from the motorist himself to the nozzle dispensing the gasoline."

U.S. Department of the Interior MMS
National Safety Alert No. 5, Cell Phone Results in Fire, dated March 6, 2002, which addressed a flash fire on a platform in the Gulf of Mexico OCS. As part of the investigation of this fire, they sent the hand held cellular phone involved in the flash fire to an independent third party testing laboratory. At the laboratory, the cellular phone and an identical model phone were tested in an explosive environment under worst case conditions. These tests consisted of placing the phone in a test chamber containing an explosive mixture of oxygen-enriched propane and methane. Inside the test chamber the following phone functions were implemented:

The phone was turned on and off
The phone was open and closed with the power on
Incoming and outgoing calls were made
The two-way paging function was activated
The battery was removed abruptly with the power on
The battery was removed and installed with the power off

Although the cellular phones battery provided sufficient energy to ignite the test gases during the testing it did not... The cause of the flash fire was something other than the cell phone.

National Fire Protection Association
After reading the materiel above it's obvious cell phones are not starting fires at gas stations. So what is causing fires? Most likely, smoking, static discharge and according to NFPA (see link above) three fourths of vehicle fires in gas stations are caused by mechanical or electrical problems with the vehicle, which has nothing to do with the fueling process. Check out the numbers from the NFPA.

The following are annual average numbers.
There are 4620 vehicle fires in gas stations per year.
These fires cause 1 death and 37 injuries per year.
Three fourths of these vehicle fires are caused by mechanical or electrical problems with the vehicle.

If we are just looking at fires related to the fueling process (throw out the mechanical and electrical car fires which can happen any where) the numbers end up like this.
There 1155 fueling fires per year.
These fires cause 1/4 of a death and 9 injuries per year.

When you consider there are approximately 15 billion fuelings a year, the chances of being involved in a fire are extremely slim. If we follow the tips that the experts give us ( don't re-enter the vehicle once you begin fueling and don't smoke) there is almost no chance of starting a fire at the pump.

Source: NFPA's Special Data Information Package: Fires in or at Service Stations and Motor Vehicle Repair and Paint Shops, April 2002


Audrey said...

It's good to finally find an intelligent person out there with some common sense on this issue. My boyfriend was trying to convince me that the electrical current was made of moving ions that caused static electricity, and I couldn't help but be skeptical. So I, like you, did my research. Unlike you, though, I had your awesome article with sourced information to refer to! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

My son has to recite an urban legend for a cless. Because of his healthy obsession with physical science, he already watches the TV show that does physical experiments. Of coarse they didn't include human vatiables. My potential engineer understands the potential static problems involving humans.

This helped explain that aspect & has the best technological info!

SciKid's MOM