Do cell phones cause fires at the gas pump?

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Close-up of a fire. A person's cell phone camera is held at the ready to capture the image.

We didn't start the gas pump fire, say cell phone manufacturers. (Photo Credit: CC BY-ND/Hamid Najafi/Flickr)

Gasoline fires are no laughing matter, even if people do find the strangest ways to endanger themselves with the increasingly expensive petroleum product. Take one Daytona Beach, Fla., man who rigged up a plastic gas can to be his car’s fuel tank – all he did was set up the gas can under the hood, right next to the hot engine. Only the truth could be so bizarre. Then there is the old story about cell phones and gas pump fires. Do gas stations have good reason to post warning signs on the pump, or is the static electricity danger cell phones allegedly pose to refueling motorists merely an urban legend?

Cell phones and the gas pump: inferno of misinformation

According to urban legend investigative website, it is a myth that cell phones cause gas pump fires. Cell phone manufacturers may include obligatory warning notices in their product manuals, but the only sparks are those of curiosity as to how this rumor ever got started. Scientifically, it sounds possible – that the operation of an electronic device could cause a static charge via electromagnetic waves that could ignite gasoline – but there have been no verifiable cases that ever occurring at a gas station. While there may be some validity to not using cell phones around hospital or airliner equipment, there’s no smoke and hence no fire when it comes to the cell phone gas pump fire scenario. Media instances of such occurrences in China and Indonesia, according to’s research, actually sprung from widely circulated Internet rumors dating back to 1999. In recent years, the Discovery channel program “Mythbusters” busted the myth.

The ‘official’ Shell Oil warning

In June 2002, a warning was issued via the Internet by what was supposedly the Shell Oil Company.  Three cases of cell phones causing gas pump fires were accounted in some detail. The erroneous claim made in the e-mail message is that all a cell phone has to do is ring to emit an EM pulse powerful enough to ignite gasoline fumes in the air (such as those produced at the gas pump). Yes, cell phone batteries may be of the same voltage (12 V) as car batteries, but that doesn’t mean cellular batteries emit the same amount of current. There was once a circulating claim that cell phones use “more than 100 volts,” but that appears to have been a rumor traced back to the traditional land-line telephone industry during the initial phases of competition with the emerging cellular industry.

Shell Oil later denied ever having issued such a warning message.

Protection from a non-threat

It is most likely that while many verified instances of fires at gas stations were indeed touched off by static discharge, cell phones were never proven to be the culprit. So talk on your phone at the pump if you must, but pay enough attention to what you’re doing so that you don’t douse yourself in gasoline.

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Daytona Beach News-Journal

“Mythbusters” exposes the not-so-shocking truth

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  1. T. Inglis on

    It should be noted that many state legislatures over-reacted to unsubstantiated reports of gas pump fires caused by cell phones and passed laws prohibiting their use at gas pumps. What causes gas pump fires is operator inattention or lack of education on the dangers of static discharge. Pay attention to what you're doing. Always, particularly in cold weather, discharge static by touching the body of your car far away from the the nozzle if you let go of it while pumping. The results of a gas pump fire can be devastating and deadly. Follow all the safety rules when pumping gas. Shut your car off. Pay close attention to what you're doing. Never leave the pump unattended while gas is pumping. Don't allow children to operate the pump. Don't trust automatic shut-off's to work. Don't disable automatic shut-off's with your gas cap or other objects. Don't 'top off' the tank. Report all spills and equipment malfunctions to the attendant. Remove nozzle from your vehicle before driving away (Happens all the time and you or your insurance company may be held liable for the repair). Don't hassle the cashier – they work very hard for low pay and must follow their company's rules to keep their job. If you have a complaint, get the telephone number and Manager's name and call Monday through Friday during the day. Most managers do not work nights or weekends. Happy motoring!