Mobile phone petrol station warning is an “urban myth”

21 July 2003

Claims that mobile phones have caused fires at petrol stations are an urban myth, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) said today.

AMTA CEO Graham Chalker said the myth originates from a hoax email ‘warning’, which often falsely claims to be from Shell Chemicals and includes a number of completely fictitious incidents.

“Mobile phones do not cause petrol stations to blow up. In fact there is no evidence whatsoever that a mobile phone has ever caused an explosion at a petrol station anywhere in the world,” Mr Chalker said.

Shell UK said in a letter to the mobile phone industry last year that “the email is from a non-Shell source and that the originating email was an Internet hoax. This would indicate that the three cases being referred to are completely fictitious… Shell has no knowledge of any specific incident of ignition that occurred as a result of using a mobile phone on forecourts”.

“The email ‘warning’ was originally sent to a Shell employee based in Jamaica as an email attachment. Without checking the authenticity of the incidents they then forwarded the email to various employees and external agencies. It has spiralled from this one source and was linked to Shell by the original senders email address,” Mr Chalker said.

“This urban myth has been around for years and many media outlets, including in Australia, inadvertently continue to report it as fact.

“It is time to put this urban myth to bed because the public deserves to know the truth. And the truth is that the amount of radio frequency energy emitted from modern hand-held mobile phones is too low to cause a spark, which could ignite petrol fumes,” he said. [See list of urban myth websites on this topic below]

Shell UK Oil assessed the risks of a radio frequency spark from mobile phones in 1991[i] and said:

…portable cellphones properly used do not represent a meaningful hazard on the retail forecourt. Without doubt, apart from the human acts of smoking and striking a match, the thing that represents the greatest hazard on the retail forecourt is the motorcar!

A 1999 report[ii] by Exponent Failure Analysis Associates in the USA concluded that “the use of a cell phone at a gasoline filling station under normal operating conditions presents a negligible hazard” and that the likelihood of such an accident under any conditions “is very remote”.

An analysis[iii] by the Centre for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility Centre at the University of Oklahoma reached a similar conclusion in August 2001. It said research into this issue “provided virtually no evidence to suggest that cell phones pose a hazard at gas stations.”

While it may be theoretically possible for a spark from a cell phone battery to ignite gas vapor under very precise conditions, the historical evidence does not support the need for further research.

Until there is evidence to the contrary, we suggest that no further action be initiated in this regard, and that no recommendations for further action are required of the wireless phone or petroleum industries.

More recently the concern about mobile phone use at petrol stations was based on the belief that there was a risk the battery may become dislodged and cause a spark that may ignite fuel; although no one had any credible evidence to support this opinion.

Consequently, some oil companies, based on absolutely no evidence, warn customers that mobile phones should be turned off and not used at petrol stations.

Following a recent seminar on this topic by the British Institute of Petroleum, they announced in a press release[iv] that:

The seminar showed the findings of research undertaken to date demonstrating that although the majority of mobile phones are not specifically designed and constructed to prevent them igniting a flammable atmosphere (in accordance with standards for ‘protected equipment’), the risk they present as a source of ignition is negligible.

While mobile phone users should always obey warning signs, there is no sound technical basis to prohibit the use of mobile phones in petrol stations or single them out as hazards.

Media enquiries to Matt Stafford on 03 9696 5444 or 0409 977 358

[i] Radio telephones in cabs – avoiding the big bang: Petroleum Review pp 337 – 339 July, 1991. [ii] Cell Phone Usage at Gasoline Stations: Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, Menlo Park, California USA, December 1999. http:// www.exponent.com /about/docs/cellphonereport.pdf [iii] Investigation of the Potential for Wireless Phones to Cause Explosions at Gas Stations: Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma USA August, 2001. www.ou.edu/engineering/emc/ (Look under Research projects/gas station research.) [iv] Ignition of Flammable Vapour by Mobile Phones Not Substantiated by Technical Evidence: Statement of the Institute of Petroleum. March 21, 2003. www.intellectuk.org/press/news/news_21_03_03.asp Urban Myth websites on this topic http://www.snopes.com/autos/hazards/gasvapor.asp http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl-cellphone-gas-fires.htm http://www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/cellgas.htm http://www.darwinawards.com/legends/index.html