Cellphones at the pump: myths debunked, but still a no-no

A sign at almost every gas pump in the United States warns customers about using cellphones or other electronic devices while refueling because the batteries inside can produce sparks that will ignite gasoline vapors. But does that really mean using your cellphone while you pump gas can cause an explosion? That's the rumor that continues to make its rounds on the internet, forwarded on in variations of the same e-mail ever since internet use became widespread in the late 1990s. Most begin with, "The Shell Oil Company recently issued a warning about three incidents where mobile phones have ignited fumes while being answered or ringing during fueling operations." The emails go on to describe how Shell has released a report describing how a motorist from Indonesia was injured when gas vapors exploded after being ignited by static electricity from a cellphone he was using while filling the tank. Supposedly, the battery inside the phone was the cause. Other incidents are also noted, and the email tells people to warn their friends and families about the dangers of using cellular devices while refueling. Shell Oil Company has repeatedly denied issuing such a warning or releasing any such report. Furthermore, the myth-debunking website Snopes.com reports that none of the various versions of the emails could be verified as being true, nor could the person's name or exact location of the incident be ascertained. At almost the same time as the email began circulating, the Petroleum Equipment Institute (PEI), a respected company in the gasoline industry, began looking into the theory that cellular devices can cause fires at the pump. Following the review of over 200 incidents, they concluded that static electricity, not a spark from the device, was the cause of such accidents. None of their research documented a single circumstance in which a cellular phone caused a fuel pump fire. According to PEI's website, a cellphone operating correctly "poses almost no danger of igniting gasoline, even when surrounded by gasoline vapor with the optimum fuel-air mix for ignition. The actual risk comes from an electrostatic discharge between a charged driver and the car, often a result of continually getting into and out of the vehicle." Electrostatic discharge (ESD) is the combination of spark and shock people sometimes feel when touching a metal object. ESD can cause gasoline vapors to ignite, and PEI and others say to prevent this from occurring, motorists should not re-enter the vehicle while pumping gas and always place gas cans on the ground before filling them. Laura Merritt, Verizon Wireless public relations manager for the northwestern Pennsylvania region, said while gas stations and some wireless providers issue these precautions, the bulk of data compiled does not point to cellphones as the cause of incendiary incidents at the pump. "We’ve seen no proven evidence that wireless phones can cause explosions or fires at gas stations. However, we respect the right of gas stations to post rules and restrictions as they see fit," Merritt said. Nevertheless, companies in both the fuel and communications industries advise to refrain from using cellphones and other electronic devices while refueling as they can distract drivers and lead to accidents.