Static can pose peril at pumps


Fire: An estimated 138 fires and one death have occurred at self-service stations during the past decade. But the odds are long, and experts say the accidents are easily prevented.

January 05, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Driving has always been a bit dangerous, but these days there is an added risk to taking to the road - fires at the fuel pump.

Static electricity generated by customers at an increasing number of self-service gas stations nationwide has caused an estimated 138 fires and one death during the past decade.

Experts say that although the numbers are small compared to the 12 billion fill-ups each year, they are hazards that can be avoided.

"It's a problem almost no one is aware of, but everyone should be," says Stephen Fowler, an electrical engineer and safety consultant in Moore, S.C.

Just ask Catherine Burkett.

Burkett was recording the mileage off her odometer at an Indiana service station two years ago, when she saw flames shooting out of the gas pump nozzle she was using to fill her tank.

She jumped out of her minivan, jerked the nozzle from the tank and after running into the station to alert an attendant, realized the gas had ignited her polyester pants.

"I looked down and my leg was on fire," says Burkett, 51, a home economics instructor for the Purdue University Extension Service.

The attendant shut off the pump and used a jacket to put out Burkett's flaming left leg. But she spent 18 days at an Indianapolis hospital recuperating from second- and third-degree burns to 60 percent of her leg. She missed three months of work and still has no sensation in much of her leg.

Burkett, of Rushville, Ind., is one of at least 138 people nationwide who were injured or whose vehicles were burned in service station fires that experts say were caused by static electricity.

Such fires - caused when a spark of static electricity mixes with vapors created by the fueling process - are rarely reported and often preventable, experts say.

Fowler says the fires are a matter of simple chemistry. As gasoline flows from the fuel pump into a gas tank, a small amount of the fuel - from the car's gas tank - may vaporize as it is exposed to the air. When the vapors mix with oxygen in the air they can be ignited by static electricity that the customer may pick up from clothing or a car's interior.

"Gasoline in an enclosed tank will not do anything," Fowler says, "but vapors going in or out of a tank are a potential bomb."

Robert N. Renkes, executive vice president and general counsel for the Oklahoma-based Petroleum Equipment Institute, says he began to count the number of static-generated fires two years ago because no government agencies were studying them and he wanted to know if the industry equipment was causing the fires.

Renkes says he asked the 1,500 companies that make, distribute or use service station equipment to report any fires. He also contacted customers, station attendants and other witnesses for descriptions so he could determine the cause of each fire.

He has counted 138 since 1992. His unscientific study also has found that 29 percent of the fires started when customers somehow created a spark as they unscrewed their gasoline caps. In 21 percent of the fires, including Burkett's case, the source of the static remains undetermined, he said.

But in half of the cases, he says, customers picked up static electricity when they got back inside their car after they started to gas up. The fires started from a spark created when they got back out of their cars and approached the nozzle, he says.

"The source of the ignition wasn't the equipment, it was the static generated by the person," says Renkes.

He says customers should stay outside their cars once they begin fueling to keep from picking up static from their cars' interiors. If customers do return to their cars, he says, they should touch something metal to discharge any electricity before approaching the nozzle.

If a fire starts, they should not touch the nozzle, but let the fire burn itself out and have the attendant shut off the pump.

Most fires also occur between November and March, when drier air creates better conditions for static electricity and gasoline vapors are more likely to become combustible, Fowler says.

But Renkes says one unexpected pattern emerged in his analysis: 78 percent of the fires involved women customers.

He found in interviews that women are more likely than men to get back in their cars after they begin refueling to retrieve purses with their cash and credit cards - and they pick up static as they do.

Renkes says the 138 reports include dozens of injuries, but only one fatality. Anne Gouker, a 32-year-old woman, died after being burned Jan. 12, 1996, at a station near her home in Broken Arrow, Okla.

Fowler says that warning signs should be placed at all gas stations alerting motorists to the hazards of static electricity. Such signs have been posted at service stations in South Carolina.

But state fire officials and federal regulators are not so alarmed. The number of fires is still relatively low, they say. By comparison, lightning strikes about 370 people nationwide each year, killing about 90 and injuring 280.

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