Last week I asked: Could a mobile phone bring down a passenger plane? Today I’m out to answer the similarly light-hearted question: Could a mobile phone blow up a petrol station?
Or, for those in the US chewing gum as they take the trash out to the sidewalk: Could a cell phone blow up a gas station?
Having grown up around the dawn of mobile phones (it was probably the late nineties when suddenly everyone had a mobile), I fondly recall the various petrol station horror stories.
Emails would do the rounds, petrol stations would adopt warning stickers, and people would genuinely be bawled at for daring to answer a mobile phone on a forecourt. Fifteen years on, there still seems to be some confusion.
The concern? That answering a mobile phone could somehow cause a spark, igniting a fuel pump and – in the worst case – reducing the petrol station to a colossal fireball.
However, in reality, much like a mobile phone has never been attributed with causing an accident on a passenger plane, there’s not one single documented case of a mobile phone causing a fire at a petrol station.
So why all the horror stories? Ignorance, misinformation, lack of proper research by the petrol station industry, natural fear of dying horrifically, scaremongering… It’s all a rich tapestry of ridiculousness.
People like New Paltz Fire Chief Patrick Koch haven’t helped. After a student found himself surrounded by flames on a US forecourt, mobile phone in hand, Koch cried (ABC News): "I believe that it can happen, and it probably could happen again.
“At first I really did not believe it, but now after seeing what happened the other day, I truly do believe a cell phone can ignite the gas fumes from a gas pump."
Subsequent tests have proven that it’s all a lot of nonsense. The culprit, in fact, is static electricity. You know those occasions when you step out of a car and get a shock when you touch the metal door or roof? Well, if you don’t discharge that little shock before touching the nozzle, it could spell disaster.
In particular, it’s when you re-enter the car in the middle of refuelling (in order to grab a mobile phone, for example; you can see where the confusion arises), and subsequently touch the nozzle, which is now surrounded by fire-friendly vapours.
On a serious note, if you do find yourself in that frankly horrific situation, the worst thing you can do is remove the nozzle from your car, which – unfortunately – seems to be the instinctive reaction. Alas, you’ll suddenly find yourself wielding an out of control flamethrower. In a petrol station of all places. Yikes.
As for mobile phones causing fires at petrol stations, as the guys at Mythbusters conclude: “This myth is definitely busted. No cell phone will ever cause a gas station to ignite. It’s just not going to happen.”