cell phones do NOT cause fires at the gas pump

I recently got my 4th copy of a particular hoax email forwarded to me (the previous copies were in 2002 and 2003, so it has some staying power, unfortunately). 

The first chunk of the hoax discusses (falsely) about how your cell phone may cause a fire while you’re pumping gas.  The text of the “Safety Alert” can be seen @ http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl-cellphone-gas-fires.htm

Below is the response I was going to send before I decided to instead just make this a blog post since I haven’t posted much lately πŸ™‚

I’ve seen this email before and really hate it because it’s one of the “half-truth” hoaxes – they take something that’s true (static discharge can start a fire – although it’s rare, it does happen) and extend it to something that isn’t (cell phones can start a fire) then wrap it with an authoritative name (Shell in this case) to get people to believe it.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_fallacy
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half-truth (static can cause a fire!)
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_fear (think of the children! you may get burnt or killed!)
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_authority (It’s Shell Oil!)

As with all hoaxes (or potential hoaxes), snopes.com is always the right place to check. πŸ™‚

http://www.snopes.com/autos/hazards/gasvapor.asp

Though we’ve looked long and hard, we’ve haven’t found news reports that confirm any of the three incidents described in the e-mail. Moreover, Shell denies having issued a warning of this nature:

We understand that there is an email, purportedly official Shell communication, circulating which describes various incidents that are supposed to have occurred as a result of mobile phones ringing while at a retail station.
Please be advised that the email in question does NOT originate from Shell and we are unable to confirm any of the incidents quoted.

There was a warning memo which originated at a Shell loading station in California, but it was issued only to caution employees about the potential dangers of static-related hazards at fueling stations; it said nothing about cell phones touching off fires.

http://www.wired.com/news/wireless/0,1382,58188,00.html

Robert Renkes, a spokesman for the Petroleum Equipment Institute, said he has documented every reported gas station fire for the last several years. “We have not found a cell phone responsible for any fire since the beginning of mankind,” he said.

If neither industry has ever officially linked cell phones to gas station fires, why is the urban legend so rampant?

Renkes said he noticed in the e-mail rumor’s most recent incarnation a link drawn between cell-phone use and static electricity. Cell-phone use, he said, does not cause fires, but in rare circumstances a static discharge can create a spark at the gas pump.

A couple things to keep in mind:

1) cell phones don’t cause fires.  Funny enough, the email links to www.pei.org which very explicitly states this.  The email is a hoax in this regard, one you can disprove just by following the link in the email πŸ™‚

http://www.pei.org/static/index.htm

Not Cell Phones
PEI has investigated hundreds of refueling fires and flare-ups. We have not documented one single incident that was caused by a cellular telephone.

2) The “turn off engine” and “don’t smoke” rules still apply.  The “new” rule in effect is “don’t re-enter your vehicle“.  There is no new rule involving a cell phone.

The “Mythbusters” show actually covers this very nicely (IMHO, better than PEI does) in their “Cell Phone Destroys Gas Station” episode as they showed how the static can build up and discharge to your car, which can ignite gas fumes in the air *if you’re still pumping*.  As with any other vapor in the outside air, it disperses pretty quickly, so if you’ve stopped pumping, you’re fine. 

The “Mythbusters” show also noted that the incidence was higher with older adults with their theory being that older adults tend to grab the metal frame of their car as they get in and out more than younger adults (since this would give an earlier and more often chance for a discharge capable of igniting the fumes).

So, be careful out there… but don’t fear your cell phone.

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