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Studies Show Plastic Gas Cans Pose Risk of Explosion

They are as ubiquitous in American garages and gas stations as automobiles. Unfortunately, they may also be, in at least one respect, just as susceptible to unfortunate accidents. Scientists say that the common plastic gas can sold throughout the United States carries the potential for fiery explosion — and most Americans are probably unaware that the portable vessels could even pose such a hazard.

In tests conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), scientists found that, under certain circumstances, gas vapor blends can ignite within portable cans and cause significant injury to those in the vicinity of the explosion.

CPSC has documented 11 deaths and 1,200 emergency room visits linked to gas can explosions during the pouring of gasoline since 1998.

Additional tests conducted at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s combustion laboratory demonstrated that, under limited conditions, a so-called “flashback” explosion can occur inside plastic gas cans.

A flashback explosion can be triggered even when a very small amount of gasoline is left in the can. Gas vapor can escape the container and meet a ignition source, such as a flame or a spark. The igniting vapor outside the can then “flashes back” inside the container, which ignites the mixture within it and causes a large burst of flames.

There have been at least 80 lawsuits filed in the last 20 years on behalf of plaintiffs injured in gas can explosions. The primary argument has been that the portable cans are “dangerous” and “unsafe” because they are “susceptible” to these flashback explosions. The bulk of the lawsuits have targeted Blitz USA, the biggest maker of plastic gas cans, as defendants, as well as Wal-Mart, the leading purveyor of the cans.

Central to the argument is the fact that the can’s design does not include a flame arrester. Lawsuits against Blitz have contended that they, if included, would prevent flashback explosions. Flame arresters, which are pieces or mesh or disks with holes designed to disrupt flames, are present in “safety” gas cans made of metal and in storage vessels of other flammable liquids.

CPSC has called on the gas can industry to manufacture gas cans with flame arresters within them. “CPSC believes that this technology also should be included in gasoline containers,” said the agency in a statement. “CPSC is calling on the industry to regain the momentum that was lost in years past by designing their products to include this safety technology. In addition, CPSC is asking voluntary standards organizations to incorporate a flame arrestor system into applicable safety standards for gas cans.”