I had the strangest encounter this morning. My fiancée and I were driving into work together at the ungodly hour of 5am when we stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank. As I started filling up, I pulled out my phone to browse the internet.
“Do you want to start a fire!? Get off your phone!” yelled the gas station attendant, as he came out from inside the convenience store. I lowered my phone (and for a second my jaw) wondering what he was talking about.
“What do you mean..?” I managed to get out.
“Using your cellphone next to an open gas cap can ignite the fumes coming out,” he explains.
“Oh ok, sorry,” I started to put my phone away. “Are you sure? I've never heard of that before.”
“Yeah,” he said, pointing to a no cellphone sign. “That's why there's a sign up.”
“Believe it man,” added the guy at the pump behind me. “It's true. Cellphones will light the fumes right up. They'll even pop popcorn if you put a few of them around a kernel.”
“Wait, what?” I said. “That can't be right.”
“It's true,” he replied. “I've seen it.”
“You've actually seen cellphones making popcorn with your own eyes? Not in some video on the internet?” I asked him, incredulous.
“I've seen it. It's true.”
“That sounds pretty unbelievable but ok… In any case,” I said, turning back to the gas station attendant. “I'll put my phone away.”
He walked away satisfied. The pump dinged. My tank was full. I put the nozzle away, closed the cap to my tank, and got back into my car.
“That was super weird,” I told my fiancée.
“Yeah. Though I've heard you shouldn't be on your phone at a gas station before,” she said. “Maybe igniting the fumes is why?”
“Oh yeah? Huh, maybe,” I say. “Still sounds improbable to me. And that popcorn thing. There's no way that's true. I have to look that up later.”
“Yeah, that was very strange.”
Well, I looked it up. Snopes has an article about Cell Phone Use at Gas Pumps. It's false. The urban myth has been circling the web since 1999. First claiming that an Indonesian man was burned and his car badly damaged when his phone caused an explosion at a gas station.
The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association has denied the risk saying “There is no evidence whatsoever that a wireless phone has ever caused ignition or explosion at a station anywhere in the world. Wireless phones don't cause gas stations to blow up. Warnings being posted in petrol stations simply perpetuate the myth.”
Mythbusters’ Adam Savage even counts this as the coolest tech myth they ever busted on the show. For which he and Jamie Hyneman also interviewed Bob Renkes of the Petroleum Equipment Institute who after investigating hundreds of gas station fires has never found one that was caused by a phone.
So what is the cause of most gas station fires? Static electricity. Getting back in and moving around your carpeted car while pumping gas can generate enough static electricity that when you go back to pull out the pump, you can create a spark powerful enough to ignite escaping fumes. Watch the video above to see Bob demonstrate how this can happen.
Protecting yourself from this is very simple. Just stay outside while pumping gas. Or if you do have to go back inside, ground yourself when you come back out. You can do this by touching the metal exterior of your car.
What about the cellphone popcorn myth? Also false. Even a pile of cellphones wouldn't put out enough energy to pop a kernel.
So, knowing these myths, am I going to use my phone at the gas station now? No, thinking about it some more, standing at the pump with my head down while in an area with a lot of moving vehicles is the real danger. I'll keep my eyes on those rather and worry less about fire risks.