Consumers often scoff at warnings that their cell phones may ignite fumes from gasoline pumps but two recent incidents lend credibility to the warnings.

In New Paltz, NY, police say a student was burned when his cell phone started a fire at a Mobil station. Chief Patrick Koch of the New Paltz Fire Dept. said the 21-year-old student was filling up his car when his phone rang.

When he answered the phone, a large flash occurred at the nozzle of the pump and started the fire. Fortunately, an employee quickly cut the gas supply, preventing the blaze from getting out of control.

Chief Koch said he no longer has any doubt that cell phones can ignite gas fumes: "I'm positive today, that as of last night, 9:30 last night, I'm positive that a cell phone can ignite."

And in Texas two weeks ago, three oil workers were seriously injured in a flash fire at an oil well site. A spokesman for the Gregg County Sheriff's Office said a cell phone was suspected of causing the fire. The three workers were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital Burn Center in Dallas.

Capt. Ken Hartley of the Gregg County Sheriff's Office said that investigators believe that a cell phone sparked the blaze, either by ringing or by causing a static electricity discharge when the ringing phone was touched by one of the workers.

Specially-designed "non-ignitable" cell phones are normally used in areas where flammable gases can accumulate. It's not known what kind of phone the workers may have been using.

Reader Response

Gary of Costa Mesa CA writes (6/18/04):
As a highly trained and learned scientist (chemist) I have always doubted this assertion. The Discovery Channel recently ran an episode of Mythbusters in which this theory (and it's only a theory) was put to the test and was found untenable: a cell phone alone cannot initiate a fire in the presence of a flammable mixture of gasoline vapor and air.

The Mythbusters' conclusion was that static discharge from person to car was the most likely initiator of any such fires reported. I know for a fact that a hydrocarbon such as n-hexane is extremely ignitable by static discharge; even pouring it from one container to another can generate enough static potential and a subsequent discharge, causing a fire (because of this, its use in industrial settings is highly restricted). The researchers' conclusions come as no surprise to me.

It is most important to present ALL theories on these gasoline fires and to include a warning that consumers should touch a metal part of their car (e.g., the door) before they touch the gasoline nozzle, besides not using their cell phones while getting gassed up.

Our response:

The two cases we reported on were investigated by local fire and law enforcement officials. There are not urban legends; they are incidents that occurred and were documented. In both cases, it was thought that the cell phones' ringing was related to the explosion. If you have ever chanced to be holding a cell phone when it rings, you may have noticed an occasional static charge and perhaps even a spark arcing from the phone to your clothing or other nearby object.

As you may know, there are in fact "safe" cellphones that are made for use in areas where flammable materials are presented -- refineries and the like. The reason for this is the possibility of static discharge when the phone rings.

If you have ever worked around areas with intense levels of radio frequency, you may also have observed a high degree of static discharge. This is very common at the transmitter sites of radio and televison broadcast outlets, for example. You don't have to be a learned scientist to know that RF energy can contribute to static discharge.

Your advice about discharging oneself is excellent.