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Static Electricity Causes Gas Pump Fires - Analysis

Text of rumor
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The central claim in this message is true. A survey conducted by the Petroleum Equipment Institute showed that a significant number of gas station fires are caused every year by static electicity. Consumers need to be aware of the danger and learn how to safeguard themselves against possible injury.

"The fact is," PEI spokesman J. Rex Brown confirmed in an email message, "static electricity has caused fires at gas stations. We have documented cases and even have some on video. Unlike the cell phone scare (which was started by a major oil company and PEI was never able to document) this situation is rare, but a very real problem."

The Petroleum Equipment Institute recommends the following simple precautions to avoid causing static fires while refueling:

  1. Always turn off the engine.
  2. Don't smoke near gas pumps.
  3. Never re-enter your vehicle while refueling.

While the author of the email got the main (and most important) point right, he or she also contributed a few exaggerations and falsehoods. Here's a comparison of the email's claims with what was actually documented in the PEI study:

  1. CLAIM: Out of 150 cases, almost all of them involved female drivers.
    EXAGGERATED. According to news reports, investigators found that 78% (or roughly three-quarters) of the static-caused fires involved women, who apparently have a greater tendency to return to the vehicle while refueling.
  2. CLAIM: Almost all cases involved the driver getting back into the vehicle while the nozzle was still pumping gas...
    EXAGGERATED. Around two-thirds of the documented cases involved the subject returning to the driver's seat.
  3. CLAIM: Most had on rubber-soled shoes.
    UNDETERMINED. The report says that in 94% of the cases where footwear was identified the subjects were wearing rubber-soled shoes. But type of shoe was not identified in every case.
  4. CLAIM: Most men never get back in their vehicle until completely finished. This is why they are seldom involved in these types of fires.
    EXAGGERATED. At least 20% of the documented cases involved males.
  5. CLAIM: Don't ever use cell phones when pumping gas.
    FALSE & IRRELEVANT. The report flatly states that cell phone use was not a factor in any of the reported incidents.
  6. CLAIM: It is the vapors that come out of the gas that cause the fire, when connected with static charges.
    TRUE, though not explicitly stated in the report.
  7. CLAIM: Several of the 150 cases (not nearly all, but several) involved 1994 Dodge Caravans.
    FALSE. Out of the 81 incidents broken down by make and model in the summary report, exactly one involved a 1994 Dodge Caravan. (Six other incidents involved Dodge Caravans of various manufacture dates.)

Sources and further reading:

Summary of Static-Related Refueling Fires
Petroleum Equipment Institute's summary report

Stop Static
Home page of PEI's refueling safety campaign

Static Electricity Can Spark Fires at Gas Pumps
NBC13 News, 4 Nov 2002

Last updated: 03/10/10

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