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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Truth or myth: Cell phones and petroleum

Features of the week:

An electronic mail is going round raising an alarm over the controversies surrounding the use of cell phones at filling stations, raising some fears among subscribers. REMMY NWEKE examines the true position.

ONE sign of doing well in a given society like Nigeria is growing up to own a car despite the form of ownership which varies, not minding the source of wealth and given that the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) is here, it has become an added way of showing off.

Although, Mr. Izuchi Ihedeba managed to own a car along with his cell phones from different networks, which he carries about with him. And for the car to work optimally, it needs to be refueled constantly with petroleum.

But unknown to Mr. Ihedeba he has been carrying with him what some critics tagged ‘time-bomb’ mostly each time he enters a filling station to refuel his car. This is based on recent warnings purportedly issued by the Malaysian Shell Oil Company, concerning three incidents that were linked to mobile phones igniting fumes during fueling operations.

The warnings, a copy of which was made available to ITRealms Online, in the first instance stated that a cell phone was placed on the car’s trunk lid during fueling; it rang and the ensuing fire destroyed the car and the gasoline pump.

The second incident affected an individual who was reported to have suffered severe burns on the face when fumes ignited as he answered a call while refueling his car. Thirdly, an individual was quoted as having suffered burns to the thigh and groin as fumes ignited when the phone, which was in his pocket, rang while he was fueling his car.

e-Rumour
The warnings, which have become e-rumour read thus:
“Shell Oil Co. Announcement
Importance: High
The Shell Oil Company recently issued a warning after three incidents in which mobile phones (cell phones) ignited fumes during fueling operations.
In the first case, the phone was placed on the car’s trunk lid during fueling; it rang and the ensuing fire destroyed the car and the gasoline pump.
In the second, an individual suffered severe burns to their face when fumes ignited as they answered a call while refueling their car.
And in the third, an individual suffered burns to the thigh and groin as fumes ignited when the phone, which was in their pocket, rang while they were fueling their car.
You should know that:
Mobile Phones can ignite fuel or fumes. Mobile phones that light up when switched on or when they ring release enough energy to provide a spark for ignition. Mobile phones should not be used in filling stations, or when fueling lawn mowers, boat! etc.
Mobile phones should not be used, or should be turned off, around other materials that generate flammable or explosive fumes or dust, (i.e. solvents, chemicals, gases, grain dust, etc.)
To sum it up, here are the: Four Rules for Safe Refueling
(1) Turn off engine, (2) Don’t smoke, (3) Don’t use your cell phone - leave it inside the vehicle or turn it off, (4) Don’t re-enter your vehicle during fueling.
Bob Renkes of Petroleum Equipment Institute is working on a campaign to try and make people aware of fires as a result of “static electricity” at gas pumps.
His company has researched 150 cases of these fires.
His results were very surprising:
(1) Out of 150 cases, almost all of them were women.
(2) Almost all cases involved the person getting back in their vehicle while the nozzle was still pumping gas. When finished, they went back to pull the nozzle out and the fire started, as a result of static.
(3) Most had on rubber-soled shoes. (4) Most men never get back in their vehicle until completely finished. This is why they are seldom involved in these types of fires.
(5) Don’t ever use cell phones when pumping gas. (6) It is the vapors that come out of the gas that cause the fire, when connected with static charges.
(7) There were 29 fires where the vehicle was re-entered and the nozzle was touched during refueling from a variety of makes and models; Some resulted in extensive damage to the vehicle, to the station, and to the customer.
(8) Seventeen fires occurred before, during or immediately after the gas cap was removed and before fueling began. Mr. Renkes stresses to NEVER get back into your vehicle while filling it with gas.
If you absolutely HAVE to get in your vehicle while the gas is pumping, make sure you get out, close the door TOUCHING THE METAL, before you ever pull the nozzle out. This way the static from your body will be discharged before you ever remove the nozzle.
As I mentioned earlier, The Petroleum Equipment Institute, along with several other companies now, are really trying to make the public aware of this danger. You can find out more information by going to . Once here, click in the center of the screen where it says “Stop Static.”
I ask you to please send this information to ALL your family and friends, especially those who have kids in the car with them while pumping gas. If this were to happen to them, they may not be able to get the children out in time. Thanks for passing this along.”

Static energy
Investigations by our correspondent revealed that other findings associated with the Oklahoma-based Petroleum Equipment Institute (PEI’s) report on “Gasoline fire started by sparks” was e-rumoured to have links with static energy or electricity.

Static electricity is build-up of an electrical charge, on a person, that could be discharged on coming into contact with such a person or anything connected to the ground, including light switch, an elevator door or even another person. According to experts, when this occurs, people feel a ‘shock’ as the electricity discharges.

Fundamentally, cell phone falls within these range of electronics gadgets due to its cell batteries and ability to light-up when switched on or while ringing which experts said release enough energy to provide a spark for ignition.

PEI led by its Executive Vice President, Mr. Robert Renkes, also said that it has collected data regarding to over 150 fires that were believed to have started by static sparks, recommending that more research be carried out.

But PEI submission was that most of the fires resulted from a motorist scooting in and out of the car during the refueling, which caused a build-up of static electricity. Then when the motorist touched the pump handle or the area around the gas cap, the spark discharge and ignited the gas vapors among others.

Above all the report did not blame the fires on cell phones as there have been no gasoline fires or explosions that anybody knows of originated from radio transmissions from cell phones. “We have not documented one single incident that was caused by a cellular telephone”.

The denial
On the contrary, Malaysia-based Shell in a public statement: ‘Health, Safety and Environment Messages’ denied the purported warnings and its content.
According to one Pak P. Man, despite the e-rumour over the years, battery-powered equipment such as mobile phones, pagers, and cameras, represent a potential ignition source.

The official also said customers’ safety and retail staff is seriously considered in the firm and was the first to place a ‘SWITCH OFF’ notice for mobile phone by motorists, even as there is a sticker to that effect.

“Please be advised that the email in question does NOT originate from Shell Malaysia and are unable to confirm any of the incidents quoted,” the official said.

WEMC findings
For the Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility (WEMC) at the University of Oklahoma, which conducted a study on the use of cell phones at gas stations.

The Center’s findings states, “Research into the cell phone/gas station issue provided virtually no evidence to suggest that cell phones pose a hazard at gas stations. In fact, there has never been a confirmed incident implicating a cell phone at a gas station anywhere in the world.

“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.”

GSM evolution
Although Nigeria in its five years of GSM evolution has not witnessed such incident, efforts to confer with the Media and Communications team at Shell Nigeria was not successful although the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has maintained that subscribers should observe the ‘switch off’ signs where necessary, just as Nigeria recently recorded over 23 million active subscribers across all the networks.

Conclusion
The best would be to exercise extreme care in places where it is on notice that cell phones be switched off, because to be fore warned is to be fore armed.

We must not wait until it happens to the likes of Mr. Ihedeba or any other before taking caution, even as this also calls for more research to continuously allay the fears of the mobile public.

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