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ST. LOUIS -- While getting in and out of a car to fill up at gas pumps may seem like a pretty safe activity, there's some evidence that it can be dangerous. As motorists hit the highways for the holiday season, the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association and the Missouri Department of Agriculture are warning drivers about the potential for static electricity fires at the pumps.
As the theory goes, motorists generate a static electric charge by the mundane act of getting off their car seats. There have been reported cases of the phenomenon in Missouri and other states in recent years. In 2000, for example, there were 14 reports of pump fires caused by static in Missouri.
"The cold, dry air we experience during winter, combined with fabric friction caused by getting in and out of your car, creates the potential for static electricity discharge that can ignite flammable gasoline vapors released during fueling," said Kerry Brettschneider, administrator for the state Agriculture Department's petroleum, propane and anhydrous ammonia program.
The Agriculture Department division regulates fuel pumps. National Weather Service officials have said that static electricity builds up quickly inside a vehicle when the heater is running because the humidity is greatly reduced. Ordinary friction of coats and sweaters makes things worse.
Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said government safety standards for fuel pumps require grounding systems to prevent fires. "Consumers should be confident that fueling your vehicle is a very safe activity," Leone said yesterday. "However, to reduce the very small risk of static fires at the gas pump, we recommend some safety precautions."
Precautions include staying outside the vehicle while pumping gas, making sure car doors are closed so gas vapors can't enter and touching metal away from the fuel tank to discharge static.