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"Unsafe Act"

By Jennifer Hazen, Editor-in-Chief

Refueling your vehicle can be dangerous. Why have we not been warned?


Since the ESD Journal began investigating static related refueling fires in 1998, it has become obvious to me that the public is not aware of the dangers or what to do in case of a fire. Please for your own safety and those of your loved ones, read our rules for safe refueling at Static Smart at the Pump. Also please read our ongoing series of investigations on our Refueling Fire Series page. We hope these articles will save injuries and lives from refueling accidents.

Dr. Jeremy Smallwood, Contributing Technical Editor for the ESD Journal, has written an article on refueling fires. "Report on the Risk of Static Ignition During Vehicle Refueling" . We recommend this paper to anyone interested in refueling fires. In his paper, Dr. Smallwood reports on a study performed in Japan:

page 19, 3.6 2nd - 3rd paragraph

The following reports concerning static electricity have also been reviewed.

Fire and explosion accidents caused by static electricity: Kinoshita Katsuhiro (1); Hagimoto
Yasuaki; Watanabe Norimichi, Kagakukeisatsuken Seidenki Gakkaishi,
(Proceedings of the Institute of Electrostatics Japan), 1996, Vol. 20, No.5, Page 275-280 (Japanese).

According to the fire statistics of Ministry of Home
Affairs Fire Defense Agency from 1989 to 1993,
between 72 and 91 cases per year occurred of fire
ignited by static electric spark. This represents 0.15 %
of the total fire occurrence. A case of fire during
gasoline refueling is reported.

When we investigated the BP fire in Spartanburg, SC in February 2002, we talked to the fire chief about how many of these type fires he had seen in his career. After much thought, he said,"15 to 20 since 1984." If this number is multiplied by the number of fire chiefs in the USA, the number of static fires may be very high and very poorly reported. We have heard estimates in excess of 1,000 per year.

I first heard of an auto refueling fire in the mid-1980's in Myrtle Beach, SC. That year we heard of two within a few months of each other. At that time it did not seem like a large problem. Now, I am more aware through my own investigations and not through warnings from the oil companies, gasoline station owners or vehicle manufacturers. I never refuel the car with my children in it. In our hometown, my husband refuels the vehicles without the children. If we are on a trip I take the children in for a softdrink and a bathroom break while someone else refuels. Even if I am aware of the dangers and practice "safe fueling", I can not be sure of the car next to mine. I heard of one refueling fire in South Carolina where a camper pilot light set off gasoline that had overflowed when a nozzle failed to shut off. I believe 4 people died in that fire.

I have asked the question many times: "Why do we hear of more refueling fires now?" I am told by the experts that it is many faceted:

1. The fuels have changed. We now have additives in our fuels which may add to their ability to accumulate electrostatic charges. We no longer have leaded fuels which has contributed to a change in the conductivity of the fuels.

2. The fuel systems have changed. Prior to the 1970's, most cars had carburetors. Today, most cars are fuel injected. This means they have closed fuel system which recirculate the fuel under higher pressure. This also means that there are more electrical devices inside the fuel tank on which to accumulate static charges. Today many cars even have plastic gas tanks which are not conductive. That is hard to believe but true.

3. Our clothing has changed. We now have a very mixed array of manmade fibers as well as natural fibers. In the past we had primarily natural fibers clothing. We have changed our shoes. Many people now wear thick rubber like soled boots which can keep the charges generated by our clothing from bleeding off to ground.

4. Our vehicle seats have changed. Today the most common upholstery for vehicles is polyester and vinyls. In the past, more natural fibers were used. With the changes in our clothing, even leather seats have a problem with static charges. Some fabric manufactures have uphostery which would be more static safe but the vehicle manufacturers have not chosen to use them. The question which is begged is "WHY?" Could it be just cost? I know I would pay an extra $1 for the car. Also, one company is marketing a spray product for vehicle seats to help reduce the static. Turn Products.

I, as an editor, am so aware about these fires because I make it a part of my job to investigate them for the ESD Journal. However, they are hard to find. Why? I believe, as was said by one expert, that there is a Conspiracy of Silence. This conspiracy is intentional in some cases and due to guilt in others. Every person to whom this happens is told by the gas station owner or others that this has "never happened before." They are made to feel as if it were their fault. The victim becomes the guilty party. This makes each of the victims wish to remain silent. The oil companies do not wish to say anything nor do the vehicle companies. The reasons for this are obvious. In fact a spokesperson for the API, was quoted as saying "we do not want to alarm the public." The PEI has accumulated data on several fires, their website was updated in November of 2002.

We hope the oil and auto industries will post reminders for us. Warnings should be in clear view both as you approach the dispensing pump, on the nozzle and on the car in the fuel port area. We don't think of static until it is to late. Is it too much to ask for a little warning?

On the left is a sample warning that could be placed on a nozzle: This would allow the person who may experience a fire to react in such a way to reduce the injuries to themself and to others.

In almost every case of a refueling fire, if the person had left the nozzle in the vehicle there would have been little or no injury or certainly not death. In addition to eliminating the static from causing a refueling fire, the most important warning is "leave the nozzle in the vehicle."

These warnings could be printed directly on the scuff guard of the nozzle constantly reminding us of the danger. The last thing a person is thinking of during refueling is a fire. That should be changed. We require persons at the airport who handle jet fuel (almost kerosene) to have extensive training and in some cases be certifed as refueling technicians. We allow children to refuel vehicles with a much more explosive fuel with no warning of the real dangers.


The gas dispensing pumps should also have very visible warnings. One company in Florida is designing a sign made of dissipative materials to serve as a warning and as a place where the person may discharge their static without a spark and away from the fume area of the nozzle. (StaTouch) When a person discharges their static to a metal surface, a spark occurs. If this spark is in ignitable fumes....BOOM! If the discharge is to a more resistive material (static dissipative) then the static is discharged more slowly and eliminates the spark and the BOOM! This sign is planned to be attached to the dispensing pump and will have a resistance to ground of approximately 1 - 100 Meg Ohms. The following verbage is being suggested by Patlon to meet the safety needs of this UNSAFE ACT.

Please send us your comments and report any refueling fires you may have seen or have knowledge of. Safe refueling everyone.

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