Gas Cans May Carry Risk of Explosion
Written by James P. Nevin
According to NBC News Investigations, the common red plastic portable gas can poses a rare but real explosion hazard to American consumers.
Americans purchase approximately 20 million gas cans each year and according to industry estimates there are more than 100 million cans currently in circulation in the U.S.
Lab tests now indicate that under certain limited conditions, gas vapor mixtures can explode inside the cans, causing significant injury. The federal government's Consumer Product Safety Commission analyzed incident and injury databases and counted at least 11 reported deaths and 1,200 emergency room visits involving gas can explosions during the pouring of gasoline since 1998.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute conducted scientific tests in their combustion lab earlier this year with the support of the gas can industry. The tests showed the conditions under which the "flashback" explosions take place inside the cans are possible. Other tests conducted for plaintiff's attorneys, for a government criminal investigation, and for NBC News all reached the same finding.
Under certain limited conditions: when a very low volume of gasoline is left inside, when gas vapor escaping the can contacts a source of ignition such as a flame or spark, the vapor outside the container can ignite and "flash back" inside the can. If it does and if the gas/air vapor mixture inside the can is a certain concentration, then the mixture can ignite and cause an explosion of flame.
The test findings are the latest development in a long-running legal battle between can manufacturers and plaintiffs who have filed product-liability lawsuits. At least 80 lawsuits have been filed during the past two decades on behalf of individuals injured in alleged gas can explosions. Attorneys have argued that the gas cans are dangerous and unsafe because they are susceptible to flashback explosions. Most of the lawsuits have named Blitz USA, which was the largest manufacturer of the gas cans, and Wal-Mart, the largest seller.
NBC interviewed several families about their tragic experiences with the gas cans and ongoing lawsuits with Blitz and Wal-Mart.
Robert Jacoby, sued after a Blitz can be purchased at Wal-Mart allegedly exploded in his hand in 2010 when he was in the process of putting the can down on the ground in his front yard. The can was 20 feet from a pile of brush he planned to burn, and he had not lit a match or any other fire when the can blew up. He suffered severe burns over 75 percent of his body, spent four months in a hospital burn unit, underwent multiple surgeries and skin grafts, incurring $1.5 million in medical bills. His torso and arms are now covered in scar tissue.
Karen Korneagay's 19-year-old-son, Dylan, died in 2010 from the effects of third-and-fourth-degree burns he received on over 80 percent of his body after an alleged gas can explosion. His friends stated that he was walking away from a bonfire when the Blitz can he purchased from Wal-Mart exploded and engulfed him in flames.
William Melvin was riding his lawnmower, mowing his lawn, when he ran out of gas. The engine was not completely cool when he attempted to refill the tank and the gas can exploded. Melvin suffered severe burns on his face, arms, legs and all of his torso and spent weeks in a burn unit.
The plastic gas can industry has responded by saying that "[t]oday's gas cans are very safe." William Moschella, an attorney for the Portable Fuel Container Manufacturers Association, a trade group of plastic gas can manufacturers stated that "[t]hey are used billions of times a day without incident by people who use them appropriately." Blitz and other manufactures have argued that any alleged injuries from the gas cans was caused by the users' own negligence and misuse. Moschella claims that most of the alleged incidents likely resulted from vapor explosions occurring outside the cans, and asserted that it has yet to be proven in court that an explosion incident resulted from an ignition inside the can.
The lawsuits allege the incidents were caused by flashback explosions inside the cans, the same type as demonstrated in Worcester Polytechnic Institute's combustion lab. The gas cans are allegedly susceptible to internal combustion explosions because their design does not include a flame arrester, which could prevent flashback explosions.
Flame arresters are pieces of mesh or disks with holes that are intended to disrupt flame. They are in use in metal "safety" gas cans, in fuel tanks, and in storage containers of other flammable liquids such as charcoal lighter fluid and rum.
After reviewing both injury reports and flame-arrester engineering, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a statement urging the consumer gas can industry to incorporate flame-arrester technology into its gas containers:
"CPSC believes that this technology also should be included in gasoline containers," the statement said. "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."