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Static Electricity and Gas Pump Fires

By: Constance Harness          

Todd C. Frankel, of Charleston Daily Mail (, reported on the danger static elecrticity presents at the gas pump.

On November 3, 1999, Robert Sexton and his wife Emma had dinner at the Ponderosa restaurant in Huntington. They then dropped their newborn daughter Brittney by a relative's house and took U.S. 60 toward Lincoln County to visit Emma's parents. They stopped for gas on the way at SuperAmerica station just out of Huntington. Robert inserted the pump nozzle into his white Toyota Camry; and, because it was chilly, locked the nozzle in the open position and jumped back into the car. In his side-view mirror, he saw a woman waving her arms. The gasoline was overflowing from the tank. He jumped out of the car and reached for the nozzle.

He sparked a fire and was ignited when he simply touched the gas pump nozzle. He was not smoking. The engine was off. He was not using his cell phone.  He received third-degree burns on 20 percent of his body, mostly his legs and arms. He spent two weeks in the burn unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital and another two months out of work. The state fire marshal's office concluded that the fire was likely caused by static electricity.

Static electricity is usually not dangerous but when combined with gasoline vapors at the fuel tank opening, a small spark can cause a fiery explosion. The public remains almost entirely unaware that this may occur.  Gas stations have been reluctant to post signs at the pumps warning that static electricity can ignite gasoline vapors. Speedway (formerly known as SuperAmerica) gas stations are the exception; they post signs which read: "Static Electricity Spark Explosion Hazard. Do Not Get Back Into Your Vehicle While Refueling. Re-entry Could Cause Static Electricity Build Up."

The German Society for Petroleum and Coal Science and Technology concluded in their comprehensive 1997study that: "When persons leave their vehicles' seats, they can become electrostatically charged and remain charged for some time. Electrical discharge by individuals in proximity to escaping fuel vapors can create a hazard."

In Broken Bow, Nebraska, on January 3, 2000, a man suddenly caught fire while refueling his Ford F-150 pickup. Luckily, he suffered only minor injuries. The fire started when he reached to remove the nozzle from his pickup. He noticed a spark fly from his hand to the nozzle.         

For the complete report by Todd C. Frankel, please see the full article at:


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