The New 'Boom' in Cell Phones
Netlore Archive: Can cell phones cause explosions at gas pumps?
THE NEWS about cellular phones and public health just keeps on getting worse. Wired News reported the other day that cell phone emissions may cause genetic damage in humans and animals - the results of an industry-funded study. Those same emissions have been blamed by consumer groups for tumors, weakening of the immune system, increased blood pressure and memory loss.
No one quite knows what to make of a British study showing that people who are exposed to cell phone frequencies react to sensory stimuli faster than people who aren't. Is that good or bad?
Wired News also reports that cell phone emissions have been shown to cause nematode worm larvae to mature five percent faster than normal in laboratory experiments. That can't good, can it?
Not to be outdone by the press, Internet rumormongers are having a field day trumpeting cell phone warnings of a more incendiary kind. Email messages circulating since April 1999 warn that drivers who don't turn off their mobile phones while fueling their cars risk being blown to pieces in a gas vapor explosion. Have a look at this:
Warning: Cell phone use in gas stations
Manufacturers have said there is a risk
It's always tempting to dismiss "pass it on" rumors as bunk, but the fact is that mobile phone manufacturers have warned consumers in the past against using the devices near gas pumps. This is an excerpt from a Motorola brochure for the Satellite Series 9500 Portable Telephone:
[T]his telephone has not been designed or approved for use in potentially explosive atmospheres. Areas with a potentially explosive atmosphere are often, not always, clearly marked.
Potentially explosive atmospheres include:
Fueling areas such as gasoline stations
Below deck on boats
Fuel or chemical transfer or storage facilities
Vehicles using liquefied petroleum gas such as propane
Areas where the air contains chemicals or particles such as grain dust or metal powders and
Any other area where you would normally be advised to turn off your engine.
Sparks in such area would cause an explosion or fire resulting in bodily injury or even death.
No laughing matter, apparently, nor should we suppose Motorola is trying to pull our legs. Similar cautions have been issued by other manufacturers, though industry spokesmen have more recently begun downplaying them, saying the actual risk is very slim, especially with newer and better-constructed models.
Still, in accordance with the maxim "'Tis better to be safe than sorry," signs forbidding the use of cell phones near gas pumps are becoming increasingly common in various parts of the world. Shell International explains its new policy in Asian countries thus: "Although driving whilst using a cellular phone is perfectly safe, we do not allow them to be used on the forecourt [of a service station] in case an electronic fault in the phone causes a spark."
The prohibition is not in effect at Shell stations in the United States... yet.
In June 1999, Exxon began mailing out information and decals to its 8,500 service stations in the U.S. explicitly warning against the use of cell phones near gasoline pumps. According to a CNN report dated June 24, the company regards the risk of explosion as "extremely unlikely" but has chosen to err on the side of safety. Other companies will likely follow.
Incident reports are sketchy
Have incidents such as the one described in the email actually occurred? We don't know. Reports are conflicting and details are hard to come by, let alone confirm. A May 17, 1999 article in the Bangkok Post made reference to "a driver in Indonesia who was severely burned and his car wrecked when it exploded at a petrol station" as he refueled while talking on his cell phone, as well as an explosion in Adelaide, Australia some years back that was "likely caused by a mobile phone."
The trouble with both reports is that their primary source appears to have been the Internet. The Adelaide story was picked up from a Website message board. The Indonesian story is almost identical to the content of an anonymous email alert known to have been circulating at least a month before the Bangkok Post article appeared. Both the email and the article cited the China Post as their source of information. That's as much as we know.
A January 14, 1999 article in Fox Market Wire contradicted these reports, stating unequivocally that "There has never been a report of fire sparked at a gas station because of a cell phone." It also stated - apparently erroneously - that the incident in Australia was actually caused by a lit cigarette. [See update below.]
Whether or not the rumors are true, cell phone users are probably best advised to take the manufacturers' and oil companies' warnings to heart. The risk may indeed be entirely theoretical, but you've nothing to lose by playing it safe and turning off the phone while gassing up.
You might even save a few brain cells.
Update on the Australian incident
Richard Arrowsmith, our contact in Adelaide, queried the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service as to the cause of the 1993 petrol station explosion allegedly caused by a mobile phone. He received a prompt reply from Hazardous Substances Officer Gavin Dougherty, who stated that "at no time were mobile telephones suspected to be the cause of the fire." This was confirmed by Darryl Horsel, the district officer who supervised the fire investigation.
According to Horsel's report, the explosion occurred after a tanker finished pumping fuel into an underground diesel tank. The direct cause, he determined, was static electricity igniting a flammable mixture of fuel vapors and air which had accumulated in the emptied tanker compartment. [Source: The Investigation of the AMPOL Road Pantry Service Station Fire, 325 Brighton Rd, Brighton North, August 28, 1993, by Darryl Horsel, District Officer.]
Was a telephone connected in any way with this explosion? Not causally, but according to Gavin Dougherty the tanker driver testified to using the public telephone in the customer reception area of the station before pumping the fuel. He went out to start the fueling then returned to the reception area to kill time. That's when the explosion occurred.
It's possible, Dougherty theorizes, that newspaper reports citing the driver's good fortune at being inside the station when the tanker blew up may have led to a false association in the public's mind between his use of the telephone and the explosion. It's a theory folklorists would approve.
News sources & updates:
- Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - 10/21/99 - 'Cell phones spark debate at gas pumps'
- CNN - 06/24/99 - 'Exxon warns dealers of cell phone risks'
- Wired News - 06/21/99 - 'Cell Study: Hazards Are Real'
- Bangkok Post - 05/17/99 - 'Mobile phone boom'
- Fox Market Wire - 01/14/99 - 'Cell phones to be banned at gas stations in Finland'