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Consumers Warned Against Storing Gasoline

Release Date: July 30, 1979

Following recent reports of gasoline fires and explosions as well as a dramatic increase in the number of consumer poisonings from gasoline, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is urging consumers to observe strict safety precautions, especially during the current fuel shortages.

Motorists and consumers concerned about the scarcity of fuel for their cars, boats and power equipment have been storing and transferring gasoline with disregard for safety and with tragic consequences. Gasoline siphoning, for example, was responsible for the great majority of the more than 600 gasoline poisoning cases in June -- or about six times the rate in June, 1978.

"In trying to store gasoline for future convenience, many consumers have been playing with fire," said CPSC Chairman Susan B. King, "and they continue to gamble with their most precious possessions: their lives and the lives of their families and neighbors."

In 1978, more than 9,600 persons received hospital treatment for burns suffered in gasoline explosions and fires; gasoline containers (including various containers not intended by manufacturers for gas storage) were involved in an estimated 17 per cent of these injuries. Approximately 90 per cent of the victims were males, and nearly one-fifth of them were under the age of 15 years.

1979 figures indicate that gasoline containers have been involved in 11 per cent of the gasoline burn injuries during the first half of the year. The increasingly common practice of home gasoline storage increases the likelihood that gasoline burn injuries will exceed the levels of 1978 this year.

Californians were among the first consumers to face fuel shortages this year. In one recent California fire, seven members of a family were badly burned when gasoline stored in a plastic container in a bedroom closet ignited. Four Los Angeles residents were killed early in May when the pilot light from a kitchen stove ignited gasoline vapors seeping from three gas cans stored in the kitchen. And in a third accident, a California man suffered facial and hand burns when a water heater in his garage ignited fumes as he siphoned gasoline into his car from a plastic container.

King pointed out that many consumers are not aware of the highly dangerous characteristics of gasoline, including:

-- its unusually low flash-point (the temperature at which it will vaporize and can be ignited)

-- the high flammability of its heavier-than-air vapors

-- its explosive power

Gasoline poisonings predominantly attributed to siphoning have jumped more than 500 per cent among adults in the past two months compared to May and June, 1978, according to data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. These are by far the greatest number of gasoline poisonings since the end of the 1974 gasoline shortage. Although swallowing of gasoline can cause serious health problems, the most critical danger is inhalation of gasoline into the lungs. Even a very small amount of gasoline in the lungs can cause death from chemical pneumonia.

No Safe Way For Consumers To Store Gasoline

This increase in private storage of gasoline is persisting despite the fact that there is no completely safe way for consumers to store or hoard gasoline. News reports from New York City to Milwaukee to San Francisco indicate vastly higher sales of gas storage containers in recent weeks: one San Jose hardware store reported sales of 100 cans per hour while supplies lasted, and a surplus store in Milwaukee reported similar purchase levels.

CPSC estimates that prior to current fuel shortages there were as many as 45 million individual American households which had one or more gasoline storage containers; there were an estimated 50 million or more gas containers in consumers' hands. An estimated 8 million of these were used for fueling inboard and outboard boat motors while the remainder were used to fuel power equipment and automobiles. Prior to recent fuel shortages, normal annual sales of gasoline storage cans were about 10 million. Current sales are expected to raise these figures even higher.

Gasoline stored even in the so-called "safety cans" can be hazardous if consumers place the cans in unventilated locations. Heat in a storage area can cause excessive pressure and release of vapors which may then travel to an ignition source. Vaporization of less than one-half pint of gasoline is enough to fill an entire home garage with explosive vapors, according to an official of the National Fire Protection Association. And only a small amount of stored gasoline-- even a few ounces -- is enough to start a fire or explosion.

Gas vapors can be ignited by a wide variety of unexpected sources, such as household appliances, static electricity from clothing, pilot lights in stoves and furnaces, cigarettes and other objects. Although a significant number of the accidents involving gas containers occur during the process of transferring gas (such as from a storage can into an automobile tank), the majority of accidents occur during the actual use of gasoline (such as in starting a campfire or priming a carburetor). Other accidents have occurred as a result of storage in confined, unventilated spaces.

CPSC also warns consumers that private storage of more than a limited amount of gasoline (usually five gallons or less) is illegal in many areas, and subsequent fire damage may not be covered by insurance policies.

Federal law makes it illegal for gasoline retailers to dispense gasoline into consumer storage vessels which do not have warning labels alerting consumers to flammability and storage hazards. CPSC staff recently suggested to manufacturers that the labeling of gasoline containers include a specific warning against gasoline storage in automobile trunks, where the risk of ignition from a rear-end collision or electrical spark is acute.

While there are no current federal government regulations covering the construction or storage of consumer gasoline containers, the Commission is considering a petition which asks CPSC to require that all gasoline storage cans be equipped with safety devices. Available devices include a "flash arrestor" in the spout designed to prevent outside sparks from flashing-back into the can, and a spring-loaded cap which allows some pressure to escape from the gas container when expansion occurs due to higher temperatures.

Emergency Storage Only

There simply is no completely safe way for consumers to store gasoline; but if consumers must store gasoline in emergency situations, the Commission strongly advises them to observe the following safety precautions:

-- Never store gasoline in the house or automobile. Keep storage cans outdoors and far away from living quarters and ignition sources (such as in a well-ventilated shed). Gasoline storage is especially ill-advised for apartment dwellers.

-- Never store gasoline in any containers except those manufactured from sturdy steel sheeting which cannot easily be punctured. Glass containers and plastic containers used for food and milk are especially hazardous, as are rusted metal cans.

-- Since children so frequently are the victims of gasoline explosions and poisonings, all storage cans should be kept secured and tightly sealed.

-- Consumers should never refuel power equipment (chain saws, power mowers, etc.) when the engines are running or are still hot.

-- If gasoline is spilled on clothing, consumers should change clothes immediately and then wash the clothing. Even when spilled gas appears to have vaporized and the clothing appears to be dry, the affected clothing may still contain enough gasoline to present a serious fire hazard.

Release Number
79-034

About the U.S. CPSC
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risk of injury or death associated with the use of thousands of types of consumer products. Deaths, injuries, and property damage from consumer product-related incidents cost the nation more than $1 trillion annually. CPSC's work to ensure the safety of consumer products has contributed to a decline in the rate of injuries associated with consumer products over the past 50 years. 

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