One of the most widespread myths is the danger of using mobile phones at service stations. What does science have to say about the real risk of explosions or fires caused by their use? An online article from The Mirror, dated 20th August 2015, at first inspection seems to confirm many of our fears surrounding one of the most persistent myths in relation to gadgets: the inherent danger of using a mobile phone on a petrol station forecourt.
So, is the myth real? Are mobiles really dangerous at petrol Pump?
Erm, well, not so fast. You see, while the article does indeed include a video of a biker showing up at a petrol pump and his bike being filled, only for a fire to suddenly erupt and set fire to the bike.
The footage was released by local police, along with the warning: “Don’t use cell phones when you are at petrol pumps.”
However, some social media users following the police force on Facebook were unconvinced that by the validity of the warning. One, Guarav Jain, commented: “Dear Hyderabad Police, I really hope you use better sense when investigating real crimes than when posting warning videos.
“Cell phones don’t lead to fires. This is def an issue of fuel spill on what is a hot, exposed engine.”
Another, Parveen Krishnan, added: “Why does Hyderabad police think it’s due to a cell phone when it’s well established that this is a myth?
“Cell phones do NOT cause accidents at gas stations. Never have. Not once.”
As explained in Naukas, the two greatest dangers related to the use of mobile phones are the possibility of explosion or fire. Could something like that happen if you keep your phone turned on at the petrol station? Science says no, because these devices emit very little energy (less than 1 W/cm2).
The only way that a mobile phone could generate a spark at a petrol station would be due to a defective battery, which is unlikely and could also occur in the case of the car’s own battery. While the possibility is remote, there is a low risk that an explosion could occur from the gases that are emitted by the hose and not from the fuel.
The truth is that the use of mobile phones is probably more dangerous as a source of distraction than as the possible source of an explosion. According to a report from the Petroleum Equipment Institute, there are no documented incidents at petrol stations related to fires or explosions caused by the use of mobile phones.
In short, the scientific evidence does not support the hypothesis that these devices cause serious accidents. However, you should remember that using mobiles at petrol stations can also result in people being run over, carelessness with the car and other pedestrians, etc. For this reason, using them at service stations is not recommended, and you can also avoid a possible 90 euro fine.
But how can those observers be so confident?
After all, there has to be some reason for those ominous signs plastered over the pumps, right?
To explain this, it helps to delve into some history. Back in 2005, media outlets including the BBC and The Guardian reported research indicating that the commonly-held belief that switching on a mobile phone at a petrol station could cause an explosion was, indeed, unfounded.
The man who presented the findings, Dr Adam Burgess of the University of Kent, said that out of 243 petrol station fires around the world over an 11-year period that had been attributed to mobile phones, not one of them was actually caused by a handset.
So, how did the sheer scale of the paranoia emerge? Dr Burgess traced it back to the aftermath of the 1988 Piper Alpha explosion that claimed the lives of 167 men off the coast of Scotland, stating that the tragedy gave “shape and momentum” to the drive for safety.
He said it was part of “a relatively instinctive precautionary response” that mobile phones were banned at service stations, with the perceptions of danger enhanced by similar warnings from the manufacturers themselves.
In truth, however, Dr Burgess said that even a lit cigarette was not sufficiently hot to ignite petrol on a filling station, let alone the low voltage produced by a mobile phone.
“Mobile phones pose no petrol station hazard. There is nothing to worry about.”
…yes, it’s forbidden to use your mobile phone while operating the pumps at a petrol station, and you can expect to be prevented from filling your vehicle if you ignore this.
But as for any notion of a massive fireball actually being likely to occur due to any kind of mobile phone petrol station use… we think you can safely dismiss that as nonsense.