April 8, 2009— -- It seemed like a good idea at the time.
All it would take to make a huge and rather entertaining fireball was $10 and a trip to the supermarket.
The plan was to take two cans of the popular -- and highly flammable -- deodorant, Axe body spray, drop them in a bucket with lighter fluid and fireworks and enjoy the show -- a so-called "Axe bomb."
Rather than the pyrotechnic display he had hoped for, Cyrus, a 17-year-old high school junior from San Diego, saw instead the inside of a police cruiser and then the inside of a courtroom.
"The fire got really big. We tried to put it out and that's when the police came," said Cyrus, using only his first name because he is a minor. "We tried to run away, but the cops caught us. I went to court, got six months probation, 40 hours of community service and a 6 p.m. curfew.
"I'm 17 and I have a probation officer," he said while volunteering at the Burn Institute, a California-based health agency dedicated to reducing the number of burn injuries.
Cyrus said that since working at the institute, part of his court-ordered community service, he has realized just how dumb and dangerous playing with fire can be.
"Seeing burn victims puts everything in perspective about what could have happened," he said.
There's nothing new about teenagers using flammable household products as accelerants to set things on fire.
The popular aerosol deodorant, Axe body spray, is produced by Unilever and marketed to young men aged 18 to 24 with saucy ads that promise to improve their chances with young women.
The product is so ubiquitous among adolescent boys, that the City of Minneapolis School Board last month approved a measure to educate students about another perceived danger related to overuse of Axe and similar products -- asthma attacks induced in classmates forced to breathe the heavily perfumed air.
But increasingly, fire departments and burn centers say, boys purchase the product for more nefarious purposes -- to turn the highly flammable contents into explosives and miniature flamethrowers.
Axe is a product as flammable and potentially misused as any similar aerosol found in the kitchen or bathroom of a typical American home.
But, say those keeping an eye on juvenile arson trends, the product is particularly popular among middle school and high school aged boys, making it an increasingly popular choice for those looking to experiment with setting fires.
Axe Arsons on the Rise
Adding to its popularity in juvenile arsons is that age group's affinity with posting their mischief on the Internet, leading kids to one-up each other with increasingly dangerous stunts posted online at sites like YouTube.
"Over the last two to four months, we've seen more than a dozen teenagers arrested for arson because of incidents involving Axe body spray," said Cindy Matthews, spokeswoman for the West Metro Fire Department in Lakewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver.
This week, two boys aged 10 and 11 were charged with arson in Lakewood when they lit a bush on fire "that spread and ignited the side of an apartment building," said Matthews, who added that no one was hurt or injured.
The two primary ingredients in the pressurized four-ounce cans of Axe are alcohol and butane, both of which are highly flammable.
"Using aerosol cans to start fires is nothing new, but because this spray is so popular and available to this age group, we're seeing an increased use specifically around Axe," she said.
On YouTube, more than 200 videos have been posted online of teenage boys setting fires using Axe as an accelerant. In some clips the young men simply hold a match in front of the can while holding down the button, creating a foot-long stream of flame. In other clips, cans of Axe are thrown into bonfires, and explode in large balls of fire.
The primary thing burned in many clips, however, is people. In one video, posted by a user identified only by his handle JPSIBZ, Axe is amply applied to the armpits of one shirtless young man by his friend and then set on fire.
The burned young man shrieks briefly as the deodorant quickly burns and he then falls to the ground laughing.
"I was dared to be sprayed by Axe then ignited by a lighter!!" he wrote alongside the posted video.
Second and Third Degree Burns
He does not appear injured, but a handful of children have received second or third degree burns from playing with Axe and fire.
In January, a 12-year-old boy received second degree burns when he and friends played with Axe and matches inside the locker room of a Mobile, Ala., middle school, according to the Mobile Register.
The boys' names were not made public, but police said the victim's burns were comparable to those of a severe sunburn, according to the paper.
In a similar incident, a 14-year-old Canadian boy suffered third degree burns on his torso and was taken to the hospital, after a friend playfully doused his clothes with the body spray and set him alight at their Ontario high school.
Burns are the leading cause of accidental death in the home for children under the age of 14 and 40 percent of the fires that kill young children are started by children playing with fire, according to the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center.
Neither the federal government nor the states catalog arson based on the accelerant used, but nationally, arson has the highest rate of juvenile involvement of any crime. More than half -- 55 percent -- of all arson arrests in the United States are committed by children under the age of 18.
Juvenile arson and youth-set fires result in more than 300 deaths and 2,000 injuries annually as well as $300 million in property damage, according the University of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Axe says its body spray is as dangerous as any flammable household product and that it should only be used properly.
"The safety and well-being of our customers is our top priority, and we are committed to encouraging the proper, safe use of our products," said Unilever spokesman Dean Mastrojohn, in an e-mailed statement.
"It's important to know that the improper use of any one of the hundreds of household aerosol products on the market can be extremely dangerous. That's why warning labels like the ones seen on our cans are so important. Our warning indicates that the product should not be used or stored in the presence of open flames or any other strong source of heat," the statement read.
Axe has produced a public service video on its Web site, warning users of the dangers of playing with the product and fire.
Why Teens Do It
Teenagers are motivated to set things on fire mostly because they are curious, said Alan Feldberg, a psychologist who runs the fire setting program at Abraxsas Youth and Family Services in south central Pennsylvania.
"Adolescents have a sense that they are invulnerable. They know it's dangerous but think it's controllable. It gives them a charge," he said.
Feldberg said fire setting is often done in a group and that peer pressure and seeing things done safely on the Internet contribute to the planning.
Most kids, he said, set fires "with peers in a giggly spirit" and "are not going to set major fires." A small subset of teenagers, however, because of abuse, neglect, or mental illness have a "pathological relationship with fire," he said.