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Do Cell Phones Pose a Fire Hazard at the Gas Pump?

Netlore Archive: Hoax email warns that cell phone (mobile phone) use near gasoline pumps while refueling a vehicle can cause fires or explosions.

Description: Email hoax
Circulating since: Mid-2002 (this version)
Status: False (see details below)

Example:
Email text contributed by A. Achacoso, July 16, 2002:

Subject: SAFETY ALERT - Mobile Phones and Refueling Don't mix

What's the problem

The Shell Oil Company recently issued a warning about three incidents where Mobile Phones have ignited fumes while being answered or ringing during fueling operations.

What specifically happened

Case 1
The phone was placed on the car's trunk lid during fueling, it rang and the ensuing fire destroyed the car and the gasoline pump.

Case 2
An individual suffered severe burns to their face when fumes ignited as they answered a call while refueling their car.

Case 3
An individual suffered burns to the thigh and groin as fumes ignited when the phone, which was in their pocket, rang while they were fueling their car.

What should you learn from this?

* It is a misconception that Mobile Phones are intrinsically safe and can't ignite fuel/fumes

* Mobile phones that light up when switched on, or when they ring, have enough energy released to provide a spark for ignition

* Mobile phones should not be used in filling stations, or when fueling lawn mowers, boats etc.

* Mobile phones should not be used around other materials that generate flammable or explosive fumes or dust (i.e. solvents, chemicals, gases, grain dust etc.)

* Mobile phones should be turned off before entering an area where other materials that generate flammable or explosive fumes or dust is located.

Please share this with employees who do not have access to email, family members and friends to help keep everyone safe.

Have a wonderful day!!


Analysis: No real-world evidence exists to support these claims. Though Internet rumors have circulated since 1999 to the effect that cell phone use near gas pumps can cause fires or explosions by igniting gasoline vapors (prompting many service stations to post warnings on their pumps), not a single case of that actually happening has ever been documented.

According to Shell Oil, allegedly the source of the information, the email is a complete hoax and did not originate from the company. "We're not aware that there has ever been an incident where this has happened," a Shell representative told Reuters in February 2003. A mobile phone industry spokesperson labeled it an "urban legend."

The earliest rumors connecting wireless phones with refueling fires have been traced back to a 1999 China Post article alleging that an Indonesian driver was badly burned when "a spark from the static electricity in the mobile [phone] ignited the petrol vapor," blowing up his car. Though never independently confirmed, the tale won credulity among cautious petroleum industry executives, in part because some cellular phone manuals shipped during the 1990s contained warnings against using the products anywhere gasoline vapors might be present. But the danger was, and is, purely theoretical. An investigation completed in 2001 by the Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility at the University of Oklahoma found "virtually no evidence to suggest that cell phones pose a hazard at gas stations."

Adding to the confusion, more recent research strongly indicates that static electricity from sources other than cell phones can ignite gasoline vapors at the pump and cause vehicular fires, of which there have been many documented cases. Unfortunately, the rumor mill being what it is, this important information has been obfuscated by sketchy email alerts which persist in claiming that some of the fires were caused by "sparks" from mobile phones. Caveat lector.


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Sources and further reading:

Can Cell Phones Cause Explosions at Gas Pumps?
Netlore Archive, 23 June 1999

Static Electricity Causes Gas Pump Fires
Netlore Archive, 6 Dec 2002

Cell Phone Fires: A Lot of Static
Wired News, 25 March 2003

Investigation of Potential for Wireless Phones to Cause Explosions
Executive Summary of 2001 study by University of Oklahoma

Cell Phones and Gas Do Mix
Reuters, 6 Feb 2003


Last updated: 03/25/03


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