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Static Electricity a Danger at Gas Pumps?

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    My good friend and advisor, Sandy Compton, sent the following to me with the caption, "fodder for urban legends?" Either he's learning to be wary of warnings he gets via email, or he's watched me skewer my friends a few too many times for hitting the forward button on an email rumor.

    The subject line read, "Please read. It was on the news!" with seven or eight exclamation points, so I was skeptical of this email from the get-go. Truth rarely requires multiple punctuation.

    The email goes on to read that the Petroleum Equipment Institute (sounds like more of my tax dollars at work) is trying to warn people about the danger of fires as a result of "static electricity" at gas pumps.

    The email was accompanied by a truly horrific photo of what looked to be the back end of a Pinto and a gas pump, melded together in a charred mass of melted plastic, rubber and metal.

    Before I decided to giving up driving my truck (yeah, right), I hooked up to the Internet and typed my way over to About's "Urban Legends," , David Emery's urban legends-busting website. And here's what I found.

    The basic premise of the email is true.

    According to PEI spokesman J. Rex Brown, who responded via email, "static electricity has caused fires at gas stations. We have documented cases and even have some on video. Unlike the cell phone scare… this situation is rare, but a very real problem."

    Still, those multiple exclamation points were a valid warning that an urban legend is in the making… because, according to Emery and the PEI, the author of the email apparently didn't think the truth was scary enough, so they added a few falsehoods into the mix.

    The lies? "Out of 150 cases, almost all of them were women." Unfortunately, the survey done by PEI didn't include gender information. I suspect this "fact" was added by someone who thinks men should still be the ones to pump the gas (and who am I to say they're wrong?).

    "Several of the cases involved 1994 Dodge Caravans." Actually, one case did. Guess the writer of this email likes Dodge even less than he or she likes to see women pumping gas.

    Not quite a lie, just evaluated as "exaggerated," is the statement that "Almost all cases involved the person getting back in their vehicle while the nozzle was still pumping gas." This only happened in about 2/3rds of the cases.

    And the statement "Don't ever use cell phones when pumping gas" was deemed "irrelevant," as, "the report flatly states that cell phone use was not a factor in any of the reported incidents."

    Almost as good as another urban legend in the making, however, was the Petroleum Equipment Institute's response to it. "The PEI recommends the following simple precautions to avoid causing fires while refueling: Always turn off the engine. Don't smoke near gas pumps. Never re-enter your vehicle while refueling." I couldn't quite figure out what the first two had to do with their concern over static, while the third seems to suggest that the email warning not to do that might not be as "exaggerated" as it first seemed.

    The lessons learned from this email? First, be aware that if you send me an email, I might just write about it in the newspaper. And second, use a little common sense when you're pumping gas… and maybe when you're running around doing everything else you do in life, as well.

 

 

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Landon Otis

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urban legends, static electricity, gas pumps

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