Summer Hazards: Is Your Red Gas Can a Time Bomb?

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Whether you are fueling up your lawn mower or lawn tractor, setting out on your dirt bike or ATV, or about to embark on your boat or wave runner it is likely that you have come across the red plastic portable fuel canister. Most people would not think twice before utilizing one of these devices because they are a convenient and ostensibly safe method of transporting a flammable liquid. However, not all gas cans are created equally and not all cans will protect you should an open flame or heat source come too near.

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Since at least December of 2013, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has advocated for manufacturers to produce gas cans that include a flame arrestor. In a statement to NBC News the CPSC identified that “an advancement in the safety of gas cans that has not happened yet is the incorporation of flame arrestor technology.” The agency’s purpose in making these recommendations is because “Flame arrestors are intended to keep flames that are external to the gasoline container from passing into the container. CPSC is calling on the industry to regain the momentum that was lost in years past by designing their products to include this safety technology. In addition, CPSC is asking voluntary standards organizations to incorporate a flame arrestor system into applicable safety standards for gas cans.”

What is a Flame Arrestor?

A flame arrestor is a relatively simple and inexpensive device that can prevent catastrophic burn injuries to those who utilize flammable liquids and vapors near sources of heat or flames. The physical device is a small piece of mesh or a disk with small holes punctured it. The device prevents flames from passing into a container by absorbing and dispersing their heat and energy. Flame arrestors are already in use on safety gas cans, bottles of charcoal lighter fluid, and in other fuel storage systems.

Why Are Flame Arrestors Needed in Gas Cans?

AS reported by NBC News in December 2013, under certain circumstances red gas cans can explode – not unlike a bomb. One of these conditions can occur when there is only a small amount of gasoline left in the tank. This room allows for a large build-up of gas vapor in the can – some of which can leak out. This escaping gas vapor can come in contact with a spark or source of heat that causes the vapor to ignite. This vapor can then “flashback” to the can causing an explosion and fire. The flashback can cover those near the gas can in an explosion of ignited fuel.

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These incidents illustrate the potential consequences of a gas can flashback:

  • Robert Jacoby – After pouring gasoline and walking away from a pile of leaves to place the gas can a safe distance away, the can be ignited in Jacoby’s hands. The cause of the accident was apparently static electricity from the rubbing of the gas can on his denim jeans. Jacoby suffered burns on 75-percent of his body and $1.5 million in medical bills.
  • Dylan Kornegay – After pouring gasoline on a bonfire, Kornegay was walking away when friends say the can he was holding swelled and then exploded. 80 percent of his body was burned. He died due to an infection after multiple surgeries.
  • William Melvin – While refueling his lawnmower with the engine off, the can exploded blowing Melvin into the air. Melvin suffered severe burns to his body.

The above captures just a few of the tragedies that have occurred due to gas can flashbacks. Since 1998 the CPSC has tallied at least 1,200 emergency room visits and 11 deaths due to gas can explosions.

Why Hasn’t the Flame Arrestor Become a Standard Feature?

In December of 2013, the Portable Fuel Container Manufacturers Association (PFCMA) released a statement forwarding the idea that it was premature to add the technology to fuel cans. The statement claims that “…there is currently no flame arrestor technology in the marketplace or in concept phase that has been proven safe and effective for portable consumer gas cans.”

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However the statement also contains the sentence, “Although the parameters for combustion inside a portable consumer gas can have been found to be extremely limited, the PFCMA and its members will continue to support and participate in study of flame mitigation devices to determine if a feasible new product design utilizing such a device can be developed which is both appropriate and safe [emphasis added].” As the laboratory tests bear out, combustion can occur inside the gas can under lab conditions. However, the attorney for the PFCMA points out that “This is really only occurring in a laboratory environment… It’s not clear at all that what is occurring in the real world, in real life, is that gas cans are exploding.”

In light of this information, the PFCMA considered it to be “irresponsible” to use flame arrestors in their products before the technology is shown to be safe and effective. However, it did also promise to embrace the technology if a safe and effective standard is advanced.

If you have suffered a catastrophic injury due to a gas can flashback, explosion, or other fire-related accident, contact the experienced product liability and explosion lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm. To schedule your free and confidential consultation, call our firm at (215) 246-9000 or contact us online.

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