The claim: Hot cars can cause alcohol-based hand sanitizers to ignite
As summer arises and the coronavirus pandemic continues, concerns about the flammability of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS) are flooding the internet.
“Did you know that you 'Should Not' leave hand sanitizer in your cars that could get over 70 degrees!” Cathy Pagendarm posted on Facebook May 19.
Pagendarm posted a photo of a flyer titled “Safety Alert: Risk of Leaving Hand Sanitizer in Hot Vehicles,” which depicted an image of a burnt car door and the specialty contractor company Quanta Services Inc. logo. The flyer described a car fire involving a 250ml container of ABHS and urged readers not to make the same mistake.
“This is fake I have kept hand sanitizer in my car for years and almost all my coworkers do the same,” one user commented. “I hate these fear creating posts,” another wrote.
Western Lakes Fire District in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, fueled the online confusion when it posted a similar claim and identical photo on May 21.
“By its nature, most hand sanitizer is alcohol-based and therefore flammable. Keeping it in your car during hot weather, exposing it to sun causing magnification of light through the bottle,” WLFD wrote. “And particularly being next to open flame while smoking in vehicles or grilling while enjoying this weekend----can lead to disaster.”
Facebook users responded to WLFD’s warning and use of the image with similar disbelief and outrage.
“This is a TOTALLY irresponsible post,” one wrote. “You should edit the image that you used, which was not caused by hand sanitizer, and adjust your 'warning.'”
One user asked WLFD if they’d ever responded to an alcohol-based hand sanitizer car fire. “We thankfully have not and are doing our best to keep it that way,” WLFD responded to the comment.
WLFD linked National Fire Protection Association’s April 17 video “Fire safety considerations for hand sanitizer” to their post. NFPA’s video describes how hand sanitizer is ignitable if met with a “viable ignition source” because of its 60% alcohol but does not mention the risk of car fires.
NFPA video does not warn of hand sanitizer car fires
“Using a hand sanitizer is a suitable alternative to hand-washing when protecting yourself from things like COVID-19 and that’s way more important than worrying about your hands spontaneously combusting,” NFPA staff writer Angelo Verzoni said in the video.
In the YouTube comments, a viewer asked if alcohol-based hand sanitizer could spontaneously combust in a hot car.
“For it to spontaneously combust with no other, external ignition source other than self-heating alone, you’d have to reach over 700 degrees F!” NFPA wrote on May 21
Verzoni also warned that storing large amounts of hand sanitizer, more than 5 gallons, poses a significant fire risk.
NFPA 30 Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code sets guidelines for safe storage.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged the low threat of alcohol-based hand sanitizer fires and released guidelines for safe storage in health care facilities. “Although the incidence of fires related to (alcohol-based hand sanitizer) is very low, it is vital that ABHS is stored safely and that bulk dispensers are installed and maintained correctly,” its website says.
WLFD removes post and clarifies
WLFD later removed the warning and posted a statement apologizing for the confusion and clarifying that the image was not its own.
“While we never made the claim that the photo utilized was from our district or from an exploding container of hand sanitizer, it has become clear that that inference and speculation made is seem as though it was,” WFLD wrote.
WFLD warned about the effects of exposed flames and sun magnification with alcohol-based hand sanitizer, although it had not seen any incidents with ABHS before.
“While infrequent, there have been cases in the recent past were reflecting light placed through a clear bottle was able to focus onto a combustible surface and cause a fire,” WFLD wrote.
NFPA says alcohol-based hand sanitizer car fires are not a severe threat
On May 22, NFPA published another video to debunk alcohol-based hand sanitizer car fire claims.
“Despite some information currently being released on social media and in the news, the short answer is no,” Verzoni wrote. “From a fire safety standpoint, it is not unsafe to leave hand sanitizer inside a hot vehicle.”
Guy Colonna, NFPA senior director of technical services, addressed confusion surrounding WLFD’s warning and photo.
“You should be aware of this material being flammable and handle it appropriately. Keep it away from recognized ignition sources, but I don’t think the contents sitting in a car is what we should be concerned about.”
Colonna stressed that because most ABHS containers are small, extreme heat is more likely to burn away the alcohol and make the containers leak than ignite a fire.
Leaving ABHS in your car can make it less effective
Storing hand sanitizer in a car for more than a few hours can lead the alcohol to evaporate, which can make it less effective.
“If you want it to remain effective, in terms of killing the virus or bacteria, you wouldn’t want to keep it in your car anyways,” Verzoni said.
Dr. Greg Boyce, Florida Gulf Coast University department of chemistry and physics associate professor, said hand sanitizer should not be kept in a car for more than a few hours during a March 26 interview with ABC.
“If you are running errands and want to keep it in the car, that’s fine,” Boyce said. “But you shouldn’t be leaving it in the car indefinitely.”
Cathy Pagendarm, Quanta Services Inc. and WLFD have not responded to USA TODAY's requests for comment.
Our ruling: FALSE
We rate the claim that alcohol-based hand sanitizer stored in hot cars can ignite FALSE because it is not supported by our research. Experts say alcohol-based hand sanitizer is flammable, but can only ignite if a flame is introduced. Although leaving small amounts of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your car does not pose a significant fire risk, it should not be kept in vehicles because high temperatures can lower its disinfectant ability.
Our fact check sources:Cathy Pagendarm Facebook Post Quanta Services, Inc. Western Lakes Fires District Facebook Post National Fire Prevention Association, "Fire safety considerations for hand sanitizer" NFPA 30 Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code Center for Disease Control and Prevention, "Hand Hygiene in Healthcare Settings" Western Lakes Fire District Facebook Post National Fire Prevention Association, "Can hand sanitizer spontaneously ignite in a hot car?" ABC 7, "Experts say hand sanitizer should not be left in your car"
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