May 17, 2004 -- A college student was pumping gas into his sports utility vehicle near New Paltz, N.Y., recently when he flipped open his cell phone to answer a call, and suddenly found himself surrounded by flames.
"The next thing you know, he said, he saw this big ball of fire," New Paltz Fire Chief Patrick Koch said. A worker triggered the emergency fire suppression system, which put out the fire, and SUNY New Paltz student Matthew Erhorn received only minor burns, though his phone was charred by the flames.
Firefighters concluded Erhorn's cell phone ignited vapors coming from the car's fuel tank as it was being filled.
"Cell phones can ignite gas fumes coming from the pump and cause a disaster," said Koch after the incident
But are the nation's 158 million cell phone users at risk if they don't hang up while they fill up their gas tanks? Although signs at gas stations warn against cell phone use, experts and a Good Morning America experiment cast doubt on the theory that cell phones can cause fires at the gas pump.
Is Static Electricity the Culprit?
Experts believe that it was static electricity — not the cell phone — that caused the fire. Static fires at the pumps are rare events, but they do happen. The Petroleum Equipment Institute reports on its Web site it has counted 158 reports to date of gas pump fires attributed to static electricity.
Static electricity ignited a gas station fire captured by security cameras in San Antonio, Texas, in November 2002. The customer pumping gas was badly burned, but survived. Static is also suspected in a 1996 fireball at a Tulsa, Okla., gas pump that killed a 33-year-old woman.
Steve Fowler, an electrical engineer from Fowler Associates, says cell phone signals are far too weak to ignite even explosive gasoline fumes. 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. "When you scuff your feet on the carpet, you can get up to 35,000 volts," Fowler said. "In a car situation we have seen as high as 60,000 volts."
That voltage is enough to catch gas fumes on fire, Fowler said. As for a cell phone — or cell phone battery — sparking a fire, Fowler and Farr say that it is theoretically possible but not probable.
No Documented Connection
With the help of professional firefighters from the Bergen County, N.J., fire academy, Good Morning America put the question to the test. A firefighter in full protective gear stood next to a bucket full of gas, holding a cell phone. When the cell phone rang, observers braced for a spark, but nothing happened. GMA tried a different cell phone and stirred the gas to create more fumes, but still there was no fire.
No one who GMA talked to is aware of a single documented case of a cell phone starting a fire at a gas pump. But Koch still believes it is possible.
"I believe that it can happen, and it probably could happen again," Koch said. "At first I really did not believe it, but now after seeing what happened the other day, I truly do believe a cell phone can ignite the gas fumes from a gas pump."
The chief says there should be more testing done on cell phones and gasoline fumes.
Many gas stations have warnings posted to turn off your cell phone, but the cell phone industry says it is because gas stations bought into the myth and slapped up the stickers without looking at the facts. The industry cites two studies that conclude there is virtually no evidence that cell phones are a hazard around gasoline.
Tips to Avoid Static Fires
1. Do not get back in your car until you are finished pumping gas.
2. When you get out to pump gas, get rid of any static charge before you reach for the pump. That could be as simple as tapping the metal top of your car with your bare hand.
3. Experts say if a fire does start, never take the gas nozzle out of your car. That is the surest way to turn a bad situation into a tragedy. Everyone who has been hurt, injured, or has been killed, has pulled that nozzle out.
4. Never fill portable containers in or on a vehicle. Instead, put them on the ground. Like a person, a container can also become statically charged. If the earth's not there to absorb the voltage, the can itself may spark.