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Portable gas cans lead to explosive consequences

Recent scientific tests have shown that the plastic red portable gas containers most of us have in our basements or sheds to use for our lawnmowers, or an emergency fuel back-up for our vehicles, may really be portable bombs--fiery explosions just waiting to happen to the unsuspecting.

Over the past fifteen years, there have been at least eleven deaths and over 1200 emergency room visits from people whose gas containers essentially blew up in their faces. With over 20 million new gas cans sold each year and at least 100 million of these cans currently in circulation in the United States alone, some feel that more problematic issues with these products is absolutely inevitable. 

A lab test in Wisconsin's Worcester Polytechnic Institute has shown that under certain circumstances--the amount of gas in the can, the angle at which the can is tipped, and the temperature outside--the can will explode. The results of the experiments were published earlier this year and explain what scientists call "flashback" explosions. These accidents happen when gasoline vapor escapes the can and comes into contact with some sort of igniter, like a flame or spark. The scientists' lab findings are the most recent development in a legal battle between gas can manufacturers and people who have filed product liability lawsuits because of injuries caused by these explosions

Over the past twenty years or so, there have been at least eighty different lawsuits filed on behalf of consumers who suffered serious bodily harm as a result of these flashback explosions. Their attorneys have vehemently argued that portable gas cans are hazardous, insecure vessels for holding and pouring gasoline because they are vulnerable to flashback explosions. Many of the lawsuits have called out Blitz USA (major gas can manufacturer) and Wal-Mart (the largest seller of these products) as the culprits in these cases.  

One particular victim is a twenty-seven-year-old man whose gas can blew up in his hands more than three years ago when he bent over to place the can on the ground on his front lawn. The man claims that it blew up right in his face as he was holding it. The man said that he had poured a little bit of gas onto a brush pile that he was planning on burning, but then walked the can a good twenty feet from the small pile so as to keep it a safe distance from the impending fire. He claimed that he had not yet lit a match or sparked any other sort of fire, but that when he went to put the can down he thinks that static electricity from his blue jeans ignited the vapor seeping out of the can and then caused the flashback explosion, covering him from head to toe and burning over three quarters of his body. An investigator hired by the man's lawyer inspected the man's home in the presence of Blitz USA officials and claimed that he found no evidence that the man had lied about what happened.

The man spent more than four months in a hospital burn unit recovering from his wounds. He had several surgeries and skin grafts which totaled over $1.5 million in medical expenses. Now, scar tissue encapsulates most of his upper torso, arms, and extremities.

Another victim, a woman whose nineteen-year-old son died in 2010 from fourth degree burns to over 80% of his body, also has a pending claim against Blitz USA and Wal-Mart. She claims that her son poured gasoline on a wood pile to start a bonfire, but when he walked away to leave the can a safe distance from the fire his friends say that the can exploded into the side of his leg, covering him in flames. The young man spent six weeks in a burn center and underwent fifteen surgeries. The young man even had part of his leg amputated, but ultimately died when infection took over and his body could no longer fight it.

In past lawsuits, Blitz USA and other gas can manufacturers have argued that any injuries inflicted upon users of the cans were caused by their own negligence or misuse of the product. However, these new scientific findings are showing that perhaps companies like Blitz USA are in fact at fault and that these cans will ignite under no fault of the user in some circumstances.

Representatives of gas can manufacturers now say these scientists' claim are not 100% because their explosions are only taking place in controlled laboratory environs. However, those who would like these cans regulated are now asking that flame arresters be federal law for all portable gas-pouring products. They say that in every relevant case, the one thing missing is the flame arrester.

A flame arrester is a piece of metal mesh or a filtering disk that is intended to stop flashback explosions. Some form of a flame arrester is now used in metal gas cans, fuel tanks in vehicles and construction equipment, and in other containers that are built to hold flammable liquids such as lighter fluid and even 151 proof rum. 

Victims and their advocates have essentially stated that any can wherein there is no flame arrester can be an unsafe vessel and can become a portable bomb under certain conditions. Meanwhile, companies like Blitz USA maintain that they are "intently studying" whether or not flame arresters are a necessity for portable gas cans.

More recently, however, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has decided that the cries of victims will no longer fall on deaf ears. The CPSC has issued a statement calling for portable gas can manufacturers to incorporate flame arresters in all of their containers. The statement says that the CPSC believes that flame arrester technology should be included in all gasoline containers. In addition, the CPSC is calling on the industry to regain the momentum that has been lost in years past from declining to design their products with flame arrester technology. 

Source: NBC News, "Warning: Scientists say gas cans carry risk of explosion" 4 December 2013

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