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Can Cell Phones Ignite Gasoline Vapors? 685

Posted by timothy
from the place-your-bets-from-across-the-street dept.
Iphtashu Fitz writes "Matthew Erhorn was filling his car with gasoline outside of New Paltz, NY when when he flipped open his cell phone to answer a call. The next thing he knew he was engulfed by a ball of fire. Luckily for Erhorn a quick thinking employee hit the emergency fire suppression system and he ended up with only minor burns. Firefighters investigating the accident concluded that the cell phone triggered the fire. Experts at The Petroluum Equipment Institute disagree however, attributing the fire to static electricity. Since 1992 the PEI has documented 158 cases of gas pump fires believed to have been started by static electricity. Apparently cell phone signals are too weak to ignite gasoline vapors, but the human body can generate enough static electiricy (60,000 volts) from simply sliding out of your car seat to do just that. Do you pay attention to all those signs at the gas pump telling you to to make sure your car, cell phone, PDA, pacemaker, etc. are all turned off before you start pumping?"
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Can Cell Phones Ignite Gasoline Vapors?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:51AM (#9181676)
    no more self-service stations for me.
  • Urban Myth! (Score:5, Informative)

    by musicscene (453302) * <{gonzo} {at} {musicscene.org}> on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:52AM (#9181680) Homepage Journal
    The stats also show that women are "the cause" of more fires at the gas pump. Hey, don't blame me... it's just the stats, ma'am!

    The Mythbusters [discovery.com] took care of this MYTH in episode #2:

    Episode 2: Cell Phone Destruction, Silicone Breasts, CD-ROM Shattering
    In this episode, Jamie and Adam test several explosive theories. Can chatting on a cell phone while pumping gas cause the pump to blow up? Our mythbusters put themselves at risk so you don't have to. They also put silicone breast implants to the test at high altitude. Will they burst under pressure? Finally, we'll learn once and for all if high-speed CD-ROM players can really shatter a compact disc.
    • It was on last night as a matter of fact.

      Now, lets seem them tackle the Cell Phone/plane interaction problem. Anybody got a few large airliners that the Mythbusters can use for a few weeks.... :)

      Honig

    • NO! (Score:5, Informative)

      by hummassa (157160) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:56AM (#9181712) Homepage Journal
      You are not telling the story in hope that people follow the link.
      Here it goes, short version: they tried, they tried hard, to make a cell phone ignite gasoline vapours... and they failed miserably. They put the stuff in a closed environment, tested many concentrations of gas vapour, nothing worked.
      The only way this happens is static electicity near the fuel entrance
      • The only thing they left out of their experiment was that they never actually hit the talk button. It may be a minor thing but it was definitely overlooked.
      • Re:NO! (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Lumpy (12016)
        put the stuff in a closed environment, tested many concentrations of gas vapour, nothing worked.
        The only way this happens is static electicity near the fuel entrance


        um ,no... typically RV's that are burning at gas stations are usually because the old fart forgot to extinguish the pilot lights on the fridge and water heater and to shut them off...

        nothing like a RV water heater deciding to ignite to heat water to help along a gasoline fire...

        Now granted these usually only happen because the same old feebl
      • Re:NO! (Score:3, Informative)

        by karlandtanya (601084)
        They put the stuff in a closed environment, tested many concentrations of gas vapour, nothing worked. The only way this happens is static electicity near the fuel entrance

        You need a flammable air/fuel mix in order for the spark to start a fire. Too much air: no fire. Too much fuel: no fire. Baby bear: Just right.

        Creating a spark "at the fuel entrance" has nothing do do with whether you get a fire.

        If you happen to have a good air-fuel mix at the filler cap: spark-fire.

        If you're filling the gas

      • Re:NO! (Score:5, Informative)

        by GooberToo (74388) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @08:55AM (#9182879)
        All you need is a good spark in the right air/fuel mixture. The fact that Mythbusters couldn't do it, doesn't mean it can't happen. Within the last 30-days, on the local news here in Dallas, I saw a static discharge start a car fire while at the pump. The person failed to ground themselves prior to starting to pump fuel. Once the vapors were in the air, they touched *something* (I don't recall where the spark occurred, sorry). Swoosh! Suddenly, the car was on fire. The guy experienced minor burns up his arm, which was holding the pump.

        While I would personally guess that a cell phone starting a fire is doubtful, I think it would be foolish to rule out the risk completely. On a side note, some states have a law requiring all metal fuel containers to be filled ONLY while on the ground and you are required to keep the metal part of the nozzel in contact with the container at all times. It seems, static discharge bewteen a metal container and the pump's nozzle are not uncommon. In other words, those guys that are filling up that gas can from the bed of their truck, may be in for some trouble. Not to mention, an invitation for a ticket.

        Morale of the story here? Make sure you properly ground your self BEFORE you start to pump gas.
        • Re:NO! (Score:5, Informative)

          by egomaniac (105476) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @09:58AM (#9183614) Homepage
          The fact that Mythbusters couldn't do it, doesn't mean it can't happen. Within the last 30-days, on the local news here in Dallas, I saw a static discharge start a car fire while at the pump. The person failed to ground themselves prior to starting to pump fuel. Once the vapors were in the air, they touched *something* (I don't recall where the spark occurred, sorry). Swoosh! Suddenly, the car was on fire. The guy experienced minor burns up his arm, which was holding the pump.

          And that is exactly what was said on Mythbusters -- the danger is in static electricity. They showed a number of such fires being started.

          The idea that a cell phone would start a fire borders on ludicrous, though. To start a fire, it would have to generate intense heat. The only reasonable way for a tiny electrical device with no heating elements to generate such heat is by creating a spark. But a spark represents a tremendous waste of energy -- why are you bothering to use your battery power to ionize the air, raise it to extreme temperatures, and generate the resultant light and sound? Cell phones didn't get to the kind of battery life they have now by wasting their energy producing sparks.

          Either A) something was seriously wrong with the guy's phone, or B) the fire started via a spark of static electricity, which is a well-documented occurrence.
    • The article states its the build-up of static rather than the phone itself sparking the fires.

      Personally I'd always assumed that was a myth and the petrol stations didn't want people using mobile phones due to interference with their wifi links between the tills and the fuel pumps. If they actually said "no phones please incase we accidently charge you too little" then they wouldn't discourage using them much :-)
      • Re:Urban Myth! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Mick Ohrberg (744441) <mick.ohrberg@gma i l . com> on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:12AM (#9181828) Homepage Journal
        The article states its the build-up of static rather than the phone itself sparking the fires.

        Getting in and out of your car is much more likely to cause a spark, precisely due to static electricity. Especially in dry climate and cold days (when people are more likely to leave their engines running as well as get back in the varmth of their car during fueling). And yes, it has been shown that women are more likely to get back in their car during fueling.

        • They tested this on Brainiac (a science show in the UK). They filled a caravan with petrol vapour and mobile phones, and then rang them.

          Nothing happened but a symphony of ring tones. However, they repeated the experiment by connecting a wire to an earth inside the caravan, then making their tester jump around in a nylon suit some distance away. He was standing in a plastic bucket to preserve the charge.

          Finally, he touched the other end of the wire leading to the caravan, a spark jumped, and the caravan
          • Re:Urban Myth! (Score:5, Informative)

            by zulux (112259) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @11:39AM (#9184774) Homepage Journal
            PS - How do you get back in your car while refueling? Don't you need to squeeze the handle of the pump in the US?


            In the US - There's usually a little peice of metal that you can flip to lock the handle in the squeezed position. So you squeeze the hande, flip the metal and can walk away and do other things.... like build up a static charge.

    • Finally, we'll learn once and for all if high-speed CD-ROM players can really shatter a compact disc.


      I had this actually happen to me with a CDR. I'm not sure if the disc was damaged, but it sounded like a large firecracker when it catastrophically failed. I'm sure it has happened to others here.

      Haven't seen the show to see what they concluded, though.
    • Also snopes link (Score:5, Informative)

      by Nakanai_de (647766) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:02AM (#9181765)
      Further coverage of this myth here [snopes.com].
    • Let's distinguish (Score:5, Informative)

      by The Tyro (247333) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:23AM (#9181922)
      between fire and explosion with Gasoline... that might help delineate what we're talking about here.

      For a cell-phone held in the hand, we're probably most worried about igniting gasoline vapors, leading to a subsequent fire (unless you're bathing your cell phone in liquid gasoline while talking on it. Nobody's doing that, are they? Please tell me no...)

      Gasoline has a flash point about 40-50 degrees below zero, so unless you're in the arctic circle somewhere, gasoline will almost always be producing some vapors. Those vapors can be ignitable and explosive... but only within a certain range of concentration. The range is between the LEL (Lower Explosive Limit) and the UEL (Upper Explosive Limit)... This naturally varies by compound... but for standard gasoline is roughly 1.5% and 7.5%, respectively.

      I've never studied it personally, but I'd think the odds of getting just the right concentration around your cell phone (multiple feet from the nozzle) such that it leads to an explosion and fire are extremely small.

      Static electricity? Now that's a much more likely culprit... there have been multiple cases where that's happened.
    • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:43AM (#9182080) Journal
      The stats also show that women are "the cause" of more fires at the gas pump. Hey, don't blame me... it's just the stats, ma'am!

      Nylon rubbing against cotton in a dry environment is a midget lightning storm, quite suitable for igniting gasoline vapor (or any other explosive vapor mixture). Women wear full-leg nylon stockings or pantyhose under loose cotton dresses MUCH more often than men. B-)

      [...] Mythbusters [...] episode #2: [...]Can chatting on a cell phone while pumping gas cause the pump to blow up?

      First you need an explosive mixture. With gasoline that's a rather strong concentration in air - present in a narrow region JUST OUTSIDE the gas pipe when filling without a vapor revovery system.

      The you need a spark IN the explosive mixture. The spark can be VERY tiny. But it must be surrounded by the correct mixture, with a trail of the mixture back to the cloud of vapor emerging from the filler neck, through an open path large enough to propagate the flame without stealing its heat and quenching it (as passage through a metal screen with suficiently narrow holes will do).

      Such sparks can occur on the breaking (and sometimes making) of any electrical contact inside the phone. But phones are pretty well sealed - especially the flexible circuit contacts under the buttons. (I'd be more concerned with the switch detecting the cover of a flip-phone.) You'd probably need a phone with a defect in the case - as well as holding the phone near the filler neck while filling for several seconds - to ignite gas fumes that way.

      Another potential is arcing at the tip of the antenna (where the voltage is enormous) or the tip of a nearby object like a sheet-metal screw. (Even a near-invisible brush discharge would do the job.) Such screw tips are normally not found in the region around the filler neck where an explosive mixture is likely (both because they'd tend to savage the hands and clothing of people trying to fill the tank AND because they encourage static discharges, so the designers very carefully keep them away from the filler.) The tip of the antenna on a cellphone is normally imbedded in rubber, so no arc there unless there's a defect (like a pinhole) in the rubber. Also: Except for the old AMPS-system phones the cellphone signal is a rather broad spread-spectrum. This reduces its ability to excite a resonance in nearby metal leading to a high-voltage at the end of a conductor (like a screw point).

      Note, however, that a cellphone doesn't have to be switched by the user to transmit. It sends a short burst every few minutes when it "checks in" with the local cell sites. An incoming call turns its transmitter on, increasing the opportunities to get any arcs it's producing into the explosive region as the user moves it around.

      Third: If the battery came off you'll get a spark at its terminals as it disconnects. Again the caveat about getting an explosive mixture to the area of the spark with a path back to the vapor cloud.

      Jamie and Adam "testing several explosive theories" on one segment of a show are hardly an exhaustive disproof. How many of the hundredish models of phone did they test? Did they arrange for a controlled concentration of gasoline at the phone, neither too rich or too lean, so it would actually ignite? Did they crack the phone cases in various ways to create an ignition path? Did they carefully make a pinhole in the rubber duckie antenna right at the end of the conductor?

      Just like being hit by lightning or meteorites, gnition of vapors during fueling, from ANY source (even lit cigarettes!), is a rare event that nevertheless occurs when the conditions are JUST right. And getting the conditions right is hard - in part because automobile designers try to reduce its likelyhood. Millions of fillups occur daily, yet ignition is very rare. No offense to Jamie and Adam, but a few attempts to get it to occur while taping one segment of a show would be extremely unlikely to result in a fireball, e
      • I haven't taken apart my most recent phone, but in the others there isn't really anything to speak of as far as transformers go. These are digital devices we carry around with us without any motors (except the vibrating ring motor). If you are an engineer for Nokia or another company that actually manufactures these units, then let me know what the voltages are...but I refuse to believe there is anything on my phone that can spark except for the small motor.

        If you removed the fans from your computer...

        • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @08:29AM (#9182596) Journal
          is the voltage on the antenna really enormous?

          Absolutely.

          An antenna is a transmission line terminated with an open circuit. (This IS a striaght-line - or bent in various ways - transformer.) The voltage at the end is quite high. If it's excited at its resonance, it is limited only by the losses from radiation, resistance, and surrounding materials.

          Consider the "firefly" decorations once popular on CB antennas. 4.5 watts into 52 ohms produces 15 1/4 volts. A neon lamp requires about 90 volts to ionize and I think it's about 45 to sustain. Yet put one on the end of the antenna and it lights up merrily when you key the transmitter. No big illegal power amplifier required.

          Repeat after me: 3 volts do not arc.

          Sure it does, under a number of conditions.

          You're thinking of STARTING an arc in air. For three volts the gap would have to be microscopic.

          But when breaking a circuit with current flowing through it you end up with exactly that microscopic gap initially. Once the air is ionized the arc can be sustained by a very low voltage. And with any inductance in the circuit at all (even the stray inductance from the wiring) the voltage will climb to maintain the arc until the current through the inductor is finally brought to a halt by the reverse voltage. So the arc can be "pulled out" to significant lengths.

          This is EXACTLY the mechanism that produces the voltage spike in the primary (and thus also in the secondary) of the transformer in a contact-point type auto ignition.

      • There is a miniscule risk that you will get a broken cellfone to produce a big enough spark (that is big in size and duration).

        There is an equally small chance that the starter of your engine will NOT create that spark when you start your car after filling...

        Hence, to minimize risk of fire prohibit starting of your engine at gasstations :-D
  • They're flammable and they originate mere inches from our cell phones.

  • by Oronwe (686723) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:53AM (#9181689)
    The warnings about not using your cellphone at a gas station is because you might drop it and the battery pack might come loose. This could spark as well and cause a not-so-static discharge.
    • But then wouldn't they also post warnings about anything metal around the gas pumps? Don't drop your keys, they could make a spark on the asphalt...slight chance to be sure, but possible. Also, what if you carry around a lot of flint in your pocket, and you go and get your money out and a few pieces of flint fall to the asphalt or concrete and make a spark? They don't say anything about not carrying flint in your pockets!

      Next you'll hear them telling us not to light up a smoke near the pump. Now that's just silly.
      • Keys are made of brass, which is non-sparking.

        One wonders if static between e.g. a skirt and nylon stockings could provide a spark sufficient for ignition. If so, it would mean fewer skirts being worn which would be a serious loss for masculinity.

      • by tiger99 (725715) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:33AM (#9181996)
        Curiously, sparks from metal tend to be of very low energy, even if seemingly quite bright. In the days before Sir Humphrey Davey invented the miners safety lamp, coal miners were causing frequent methane explosions by using candles, many disasters were so caused. The safest thing they had at the time was the Spedding Steel Mill, which was a spinning steel disc rubbing on a flint, they worked by the light of the continuous stream of sparks, but methane would not ignite (usually!). It was proved to be unsafe in the end, but did not cause nearly as many explosions as might have been expected.

        Much later on, in the 1960s IIRC, a manager at Ford in the UK had some petrol (gasoline to all you US /.ers) poured into pools in the concrete-surfaced yard, then a tractor dragged assorted pieces of scrap iron through it for several hours, no ignition! It was concluded that most car fires following accidents are as a result of sparks from damaged wiring, not friction. However, some believe that repeating the Ford experiment with modern unleaded fuel might give entirely different results, as apparently it does ignite more easily, so is more at risk from friction sparks, or RF sparks from mobiles.

        I have actually seen someone smoking while filling a lawn mower from a can. I wonder how many times he got away with it before disaster struck. Never seen it at a filling station though.

    • I think the point about cell phones is that when they ring there is an opportunity for a spark, which could ignite the vapours. IIRC on the old style mobiles back in the early 90's the manual used to suggest you shouldn't use them if you're carrying explosives in the car, which was obviously an issue in Ireland at the time.
  • Short Answer: NO (Score:5, Informative)

    by gizmonic (302697) * on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:53AM (#9181690) Homepage
    They did a thing about this on Mythbusters on Discovery, and were unable to start a fire this way. They pretty much concluded that the static you build up from getting in or our of the car during a fill-up can cause a spark if you touch the car. And doing that near the fueling point can cause a fire. Of course, the worst thing you can do then, which most people do, is pull the hose out of the tank and proceed to spill a LOT of gas into an already burning fire. Not good, especially when you are the one removing the hose. Leave the handle and hose right where it is and get the hell out of there.

    And here is a little more data on this urban myth [snopes.com].
  • Cellphone Paranoia (Score:4, Interesting)

    by stoobthealien (210467) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:54AM (#9181697) Homepage
    Moving on from the gas station thing, what are people's policies about cellphones (or mobiles as we call them in the UK!) and computers. I'm currently in my computer science lab and if I get my phone out of my pocket I'll be banned for the day.

    Are they being overly paranoid? Can cellphones really disrupt your average PC in as much as they might ignite petrol fumes...
    • by timbloid (208531) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:58AM (#9181739)
      > Can cellphones really disrupt your average PC in as much as they might ignite petrol fumes...

      No, but they can put everybody else within earshot off their work, and into a slow state of boiling rage...

      Listening to three other people's incessant mindless babbling over their mobiles for a few hours is a good way to get nothing done, and really angry about it...

      I'm guessing their reasoning for banning your mobile is just common courtesy...
    • Possibly; think about how much a mobile disrupts a telephone conversation (I'm sure you've heard the bleeping on the phone while your mobile receives a text message!). When I first got a mobile (about 7 years ago), I could tell it was going to ring before it made a noise, simply because of the disruption on the monitor.

      As for the real impact, well, I work in an office where almost everyone has a mobile and the computers are generally well-behaved.

    • Can cellphones really disrupt your average PC in as much as they might ignite petrol fumes...
      YES!

      I used to have an old crappy aiwa sound system, and if the cell phone was laying on top of it and would ring, it would reboot the player, sometimes even hard locking it so it would need the power cord pulled. (turning the phone one while it was on top also did it)

    • Some older model phones did exhibit a strange interaction with the computers at the university where I used to work. I had an old Nokia something crappy or another (not the big Long Plastic Brick Of Doom, but a shorter heavier one-- can't remember the model number, this was three years ago) that, whenever I brought it in to work, would cause popping noises to come out of the speakers/headphones every four seconds or so. Really freaked me out for a while till I figured it out.
  • In Finland, the local subsidiary of Esso has forbidden tbe use of mobile phones at gas stations. That has been effect for a few years. No-one seems to follow the rule, however. :)
    • Maybe fire prevention is tied more to getting people to pay attention to pumping the gas (and not spilling any) than phones or otherwise.
  • It can (Score:3, Funny)

    by Timesprout (579035) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:55AM (#9181707)
    If the phone is on fire.
  • It's only petrol (Gasoline) vehicles for which this presents a serious risk. I could drop a lit match into the fuel tank of my diesel car and it would just go out.

    If the oil supply is as low as some sources claim (C 30 years) get used to the idea of catalysed diesel engines and vegetable oil fuel. Safe and Green!
    • by xtal (49134)
      If the oil supply is as low as some sources claim (C 30 years) get used to the idea of catalysed diesel engines and vegetable oil fuel. Safe and Green!


      I have yet to see a good energy analysis of biodiesel done that accounts for all the inputs used, e.g. fertilizer, fuel used by harvesting equipment, and energy for processing and transport. It would suprise me if there was a net energy gain, actually it would probably shock me.

      Thermodynamics is dismal stuff. Oil works because there are billions of watts
      • by CdBee (742846)
        Probably true of itself, however:

        Vegetable oil can be used industrially then processed into fuel - probably millions of gallons a year are used for cooking. In parts of Japan all vegetable oil is stored after use, collected by a weekly tanker and reprocessed into bio-diesel.. sometimes mixed with regular diesel to improve the taste but used nonetheless.
        This probably leads to a net energy gain.. especially when you consider that it rids society of the problem of disposing of used cooking oil, which can
    • I used to be even more paranoid while fueling my propane vehicles until I read your post.

      And I was worried about the proposed hydrogen cars of the future.

      Thank you for putting my mind at ease.

  • FWIW, for over a year now it has been illegal to even have your cellphone on at gas stations in Puerto Rico. If you are seen using one at a station you can be fined (forget the exact penalty, but I think its like $250). We were somewhat baffled when this law went into place, and it still seems there is little fact to support it.
  • I have seen the warning signs in the gas stations, telling everyone to not use their phones while in the petrol station. At least here in norway, they are everywhere.

    Aside from the occasional exploding batteries in Nokias, what on earth could make a spark in a regular phone? There's no high voltage circuits, no glow points.

    On ther other hand, I have seen sparks while my statically charged body touched the ground (shell) of the car,
    • On ther other hand, I have seen sparks while my statically charged body touched the ground (shell) of the car,

      That may be a problem with the electrical system in your car. Mine does the same thing very nearly every time I get out of the car, and it's become progressively more painful. I figure my car is either trying to tell me two things: a) "Don't take corners at 45mph, John, I don't like it when you do that" or b) "I have a serious problem that demands your attention, John, so stop buying video games
  • by Sirch (82595) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:57AM (#9181726) Homepage
    A rather trashy science program in the UK on Sky, called Braniac: Science Abuse performed an experiment where they covered a trailer in gasoline and left a mobile phone in it. They then phoned it. Nothing happened. Then they added more gas and mobile phones, and phoned them all at the same time. Still nothing happened.

    Not sure it proved anything, so they blew it up with something anyway. Bit of detail here [fact-index.com].
  • by gadders (73754) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @06:58AM (#9181732)
    In the UK they cell phone transmitters on petrol stations [bbc.co.uk].*
  • Of course, I cannot seem to find it on the online version but I believe the May 2004 issue has a one-pager about it saying that this is a myth. Someone conducted a bunch of experiments and could not come up with a scenario where a cell phone could ignite gaslone vapors...
  • Is the problem. The cellphone thing might have just been a coincidence. See here. [about.com]

    I live in the Washington DC area and we've had a few of these caught on video in the last 6 months. It's really crazy to see. One minute your pumping gas, the next your catching fire. Guess you should pay attention to those warning stickers at the pumps that say turn your car off, no smoking and no cellphone usage, eh?
  • DMAN MAN... Didn't you see that Mythbusters episode??

    The sad part is, they're ALL getting "informative" posts... hello?

    Anyhow, shouldn't the original editor of seen this... we are geeks right?

  • With the move to lower carbon content in modern tires, are they less able to dissipate any static buildup?
  • Mostly women... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by CheapScott (83584)
    Not to pick on women, but I did hear that it was mostly women who would cause fires by static electricity. This was because they would most often leave their purse in the car or have want to attend to the kid inside of the car once they've started pumping the gas.

    The recommendation was to get out of the car and stay out until you're done filling the tank.

    Another tidbit: If you're filling up a portable gas tank, it is recommended that you maintain contact between the gas nozzle and the can during the ga
  • Fault (Score:3, Interesting)

    by klaasb (523629) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:01AM (#9181753)
    Hey, it's the gasoline that causes the burns not the cellphone.
    We are blaming the wrong item here :-)

    Time to get rid of this way to old fashioned source of energy anyway.
  • Pacemaker? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:01AM (#9181757)
    all those signs at the gas pump telling you to to make sure your car, cell phone, PDA, pacemaker, etc.

    Turn off you PACEMAKER? What?
  • Why do so many people think Mythbusters is the final say on science? It is a TV Show people. They tried it. It didn't happen. That doesn't mean it CAN'T happen. THey didn't scientifically prove ANYTHING, they just didn't get it to occur which showed it to be unlikely.

    I do remember last week when I saw the gas station closed with the fire trucks all around it (I live in New Paltz) and was like WTF but I do believe it was the cell phone that did it.
  • by Vellmont (569020) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:03AM (#9181769) Homepage
    Is that the fire chief is so adamant about blaming cell phones rather than simple static electricity.

    1. Cell phones emit minimum amount of power (no microwave heating of the fumes).
    2. AFAIK there's no documented cases of cell phones starting a gasoline fire.
    3. Electric sparks obviously can start gasoline fumes on fire. How do you think a spark plug works?
    4. We all know how easily static electricity can build up from simply walking across a rug on a dry day.

    Kinda makes you wonder just how much training the fire chiefs have. I'm sure they know how to fight fires, but at least this guy seems to have limited knowledge and analytical skills about how fires start.
    • Yup (Score:3, Insightful)

      by blunte (183182)
      Just because someone is a Fire Chief doesn't mean they know jack about how electricity really works.

      I'm no EE, but I can assure you energy discharged when I slide out of my seat in the car and touch the side of the car is hundreds, perhaps thousands of times stronger than the level of electricity used at any given moment on a working cell phone (modified stun-phones notwithstanding).

      Perhaps the fireman hates cell phones, and is hoping this ruse will kill cell phone use. I can see that angle.
  • by cybergibbons (554352) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:06AM (#9181789) Homepage

    It seems as if, reading the report, that nearly all of these accidents resulted from someone putting the nozzle into the vehicle, then locking it on, leaving, coming back, and a static discharge igniting the vapours near the filler cap.

    This is reasonable - you quite often feel small static shocks. Especially in dry hot weather, perhaps explaining a high incidence of acccidents in Texas and Nebraska, and a lot less in humid coastal ares.

    And when you are filling up, you often see clouds of vapour almost pouring out of the filler. These would be very easy to ignite.

    Here in the UK you can't put a pump on automatic fill. You need to hold the trigger whilst all the time. The handle is grounded, so that as soon as you touch it, the static goes, and as long as you keep on holding it, there won't be a problem, as there will be no sparks.

  • Well.. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hookedup (630460) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:07AM (#9181795)
    I have a video on my email, girl gets out of car, starts pumping her gas, gets back in her car to what looks like put some lip stuff on. she gets back out and goes to touch the handle pumping gas into her car, and whooosh! fireball.

    she pulls the nozzle out of the car, and you can see fire comming from the gas tank, as well as the nozzle. she ends up dropping it and running away.

    all from a little static..
    • Re:Well.. (Score:5, Informative)

      by LightningTH (151451) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:20AM (#9181890)
      The real issue is that people get in and out of the car and dont grab ahold of the car, or some other object to ground themselves before grabbing the nozzle. This is when the static electricity gets released and becoems dangerous.

      This is also why women are the leading cause to the fires, as they get in and out to do something. None of the fires, according to MythBusters, are started by older people, as older people will grab the car to get out, or stand there the whole time holding the handle to the pump causing them to stay grounded.
    • Re:Well.. (Score:5, Informative)

      by Chanc_Gorkon (94133) <gorkon&gmail,com> on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:28AM (#9181963)
      You NEVER get back in a car when fueling. This lady suffered because of it. You are safe when fueling as long as you never open/close the car doors and more so if you don;t get in and out. It's tha static that causes this. Same thing goes when filling a can of gas for your lawn mower. Putting it in your car when filling not only puts you at risk for the gas overflowing, but also for the static to buiild up.

      Cell Phones, PDAS and everything else do not even come close to causing a gas station fire...unless your using a non manufacturer batter with explosion problems! :) According to Nokia anyway.
  • sounds possible (Score:3, Informative)

    by scampiandchips (741448) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:07AM (#9181797)
    With process plants if we got any level of escaped gas etc.. you initate a level 1 shutdown which kills power to everything.
    Even the UPS sytem that fed an automated tranmitter, the idea being that the transmitted radio waves could induce current and possibly lead to a spark in any nearby metal.
    Petrol isn't quite as flammable, but the same principle applies. If you had you phone near a suitable surface an incoming call may well have the same effect.
    Personally i'm more concerned about the mobile phone masts they have installed in petrol station signs.
  • Grounding Strap? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by malia8888 (646496) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:09AM (#9181812)
    He and Jim Farr, a fire marshal from Gaston County, N.C., study static fire and say your body can build up a static charge in different ways, such as getting in and out of a vehicle.

    Why not just have patrons rigged up to a type of grounding strap while pumping gas? This would also prevent them from re-entering their vehicle while filling the tank if the stap were short enough. From reading the reports this appears to be a bigger risk than phone usage. Besides, if somebody fails to pay for gas the strap keeps him/her from running away. :P

    • Re:Grounding Strap? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Nick Driver (238034)
      All aircraft refueling pumps require, by law, a grounding wire to be connected to the aircraft to reduce the opportunity for static electric discharge before even putting the pump nozzle into the tank opening. Aircraft refueling involves a *much* higher rate of flow than auto refueling too (I can fill the twin 25 gallon tanks in my airplane in a mere fraction of the time it takes to put 20 gallons into my car). The high rate of flow of a non-polar fluid from the nozzle into the tank forms a sort of Van DeGr
  • Inconvenience to me of leaving my phone in the car when filling up: essentially zero.

    Inconvenience to me of going up in a ball of flames if it turns out the stories are true: potentially life-altering.

    Really, as far as risk management goes, this one seems to me to be a no-brainer. I don't need to make or take a call while filling up my car; if the call is that urgent, the car can wait, and vice-versa.
  • This question was also asked by the Myth Busters [discovery.com] on the Discovery channel, in episode 2 [discovery.com] And their discoveries came to the same conclusions as the PEI, that cell phones do not causes explosions, but that static electricity, especially that built up by entering and exiting the vehical while pumping up, was the cause of many gas station fires.
  • by ITman75 (671124) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:10AM (#9181820)
    On the Discovery Channel there is a show called Mythbusters (love that show) and they tried every which way to see how a cell phone can ignite gasoline vapors.

    They had there "blast chamber" filled with gas vapors and oxygen. Called the cell phone and nothing happened. Infact they ended up trying just static electricity and still nothing happened.

  • ...I don't. Even in Australia, there are signs all over every petrol* station warning you to turn off your mobile phones. In some cases they go so far as to tell you not to use your remote car locking.

    Unfortunately, it's paranoia of getting sued that drives this. Companies all over the place do things they know are ridiculous to cover themselves in the event that someone does a really stupid thing that they should know better. The company I work for has just annoyed over a thousand customers by insist

  • Not a myth (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:18AM (#9181869)
    I work for a major manufacturer of gasoline dispensers (and many run Linux).

    The sigificant risk for ignition via a cell phone is by dropping the phone. The battery separates, and a spark insues.

    UL defines the Class I Division 1 area (considered explosive) as approximately 3 feet high and 18 feet in diameter from the source (dispenser). At the typical operational height of a cell phone there is little risk, even if there was sufficient RF energy. However if you drop it, the vapor does hover above the ground and presents a significant risk.

    The predominate risk is static electricity. In times past (the 90's and earlier), vehicles would simply vent the vapor (largely pentane and butane) from the tank's fillneck by displacement as fuel was introduced. This led to a cloud of saturated vapor in proximity to the fillneck that was too rich to ignite at the fillneck interface. Newer vehicles have onboard vapor recovery whereby a carbon canister retains the vapor as your dispense. Consequently saturated vapor no longer clouds the fillneck area and the explosive region moves closer to the fillneck where a spark from static dischage (nozzle to car/hand to nozzle/hand to car) will cause ignition.

    Treat fueling like handling a chip. Discharge yourself against the pump chasis first (damn well grounded) and vechile to put everything at the same potential before dispensing.

    NEVER refuel a portable gasoline container upon an insulated surface like a carpeted trunk or plastic truck bedliner. Set it on the concrete, otherwise you've crated a perfect Lynden Jar capacitor. Many fires happen in this manner.

  • Static scares me... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tbase (666607) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:18AM (#9181874)
    ...every time I get out of our mini-van (shut up) I get the crap shocked out of me when I touch the door. I always make sure I touch it before gassing up.

    I thing the biggest danger (besides the morons who smoke at the pump) are people who fill plastic gas cans in the back of pick up trucks. I've seen a few videos of people doing that going up in flames.

    One time there was a guy filling his tire right next to the pump with one of those 12v mini air compressors, while filling his gas tank. I asked him if he knew how dangerous that was. He didn't understand until I pointed out that the compressor has an electric motor in it.
  • While at a pump, I took out my phone and gave a buddy a call ( had to pick up something, forgot what). ABout 1/2 way trhough the call, this gas jockey came literally *hurtling* out of the store yelling at me "turn off the phone!".

    After my initial shock, I quickly told my friend I had to go and hung up. I really had no clue what he was ranting about. Then the guy pointed at the numerous signs around the station banning phones. I had to laugh at him.

    I always knew this was a bunch of BS. I wish they'd get t
  • It has been documented that these gas fires are caused by static buildup, not cell phones. People getting in and out of their cars while the gas is pumping is the main cause. And it has also been documented that women get back into their cars much more frequently than men (presumably to get their purse or money or whatever). So if you need to get in your car while pumping gas, make sure you touch something metal on the car before touching the gas nozzle to distarge any static, and you won't have any prob
  • The idea that a battery in a cell phone poses a considerable danger because of the current draw when receiving/answering/making a call seems rather odd to me. Last time that I checked most trips to gas stations are made in automobiles that have much larger, much more powerful batteries than any cell phone that I have ever seen (If you do not believe me go out to you automobile and look around, you will probably find it under the hood).

    After arriving at the gas station and spending a boat load of money to
  • I'm curious how many ppl leave their car running while pumping gas. Often times I do. (no explosions so far) Is there anything specifically dangerous about this? The exhaust is safely cool by the time it reaches the tailpipe, and I can't think of anything that would build up static or spark on my truck. Although if it *were* insulated, the belts would make a great van de graffe (sp?) generator.
    • Oh my god. Im am suprised you cant work that one out for yourself. I pray i never have to fill up my car next to you.

      If you dont know better, WHY DONT YOU READ THE WARNING SIGNS?

  • Saw a programe once where they filed loads of open topped tubs and soaked the material in a caravan in petrol then filed it with mobiles and turned them on and rung them all at the same time. Nothing happend next they got a guy wearing a shell suit and standing in a plastic bucket, so he wasn't earthed and then rubbed himself to build up a static charge then he touched a cable that they had feed into the vapour ridden caravan Boom. So it's more dangerous to wear a sheel suit than use a mobile around petrol
  • by karlandtanya (601084) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @07:44AM (#9182083)
    Look for horses.


    I'll report that I've seen *many* "static sparks" when getting out of my car. I've measured, then discharged accumulated potentials. I've measured the breakdown voltage of dry air. I've deliberately generated "static charges" by sliding my butt across the car seat. On a dry day, the experiment is very repeatable. All these situations relate to "static sparks"--more strictly--arc discharges of electrical potential.


    I've never observed, measured, empirically repeated, or even heard reliable reports of an electric arc coming from a cell phone.


    This does not prove that such things are possible.


    But I'm not going to start looking for zebras.

  • by libertynews (304820) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @10:56AM (#9184294) Homepage
    They reran it at 7PM last night, and will be playing it again tonight at 2AM, set your Tivo!

    MythBusters Show Schedule [discovery.com]

  • Intrinsically Safe (Score:3, Informative)

    by BandwidthHog (257320) <inactive.slashdo ... icallyenough.com> on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @11:50AM (#9184957) Homepage Journal
    I would have posted this sooner, but I've spent the morning at a large chemical plant (polyester resins and intermediates) doing fire extinguisher maintenance. When I'm out there, my cell phone stays in my car. Why? Because it's not intrinsically safe. No equipment that doesn't bear that designation is allowed anywhere near the process areas. The risk of microscopic internal spark/arc is there with any battery operated device, be it a cell phone, a flashlight, or an iPod. Check out the heavy duty flashlights used in industrial settings; they're rated Intrinsically Safe by MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Association).

    So the short answer is, forget all this crap about which thingamjig resonates at 1.21 gigawatts; it's a simple fact that any electrically powered device can ignite flammable vapors unless specially designed not to, which is often by way of inner and outer layers of air tight casing.

    Also, there's little doubt that common fabric-induced static is responsible for most gas pump fires. But to assume that proves that cell phones can't also ignite flammable vapors is silly.
  • Seriously.. A lot of gas stations have removed the little tab for jamming the pump handle on, so sometimes I use my 2nd cell phone (a cheap Nokia model) to jam the squeeze handle open.

    Yes.. I leave it turned on. No, it has never rung while doing so...

    ~m

  • by gillbates (106458) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @12:33PM (#9185753) Homepage Journal

    Are the real cause of the problem.

    Before the use of plastic became prevalent in cars, the gas tanks were made of metal - from the tank all the way up to the fill pipe. Nowadays, the filler pipe is rarely made of metal - it's usually plastic or rubber.

    Herein lies the problem: A metal filler pipe will ground the vehicle when the pump is placed in the opening; plastic won't. Normally, any static electicity buildup created by entering/exiting the vehicle would have been prevented by the pump grounding the vehicle. But with plastic filler pipes, the pump no longer grounds the vehicle, and hence, a static charge can build up on the vehicle as it is fueled.

    Incidentally, ever time I leave my vehicle in cold, dry weather, I experience a rather substantial shock as I close the door - the friction with the seat builds up static electricity. I've often wondered what would happen if I left the door open (thus remaining staticly charged) and attempted to pump gas....

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