Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2020.

Viral Distortion

How a fire department's social media post caused an explosion of false claims over hand sanitizer

BY ANGELO VERZONI

The power of a Facebook post became abundantly clear in May when a fire department’s message about bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS) led people to falsely believe the products could spontaneously ignite if left in a hot car. The viral post prompted a clarification from NFPA.

On May 21, the Western Lakes Fire District in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, set out to deliver a helpful fire safety message about flammable liquids. “Most hand sanitizer is alcohol-based and therefore flammable,” the department wrote on its Facebook page. It’s what came next that confused people and, ultimately, led to the post being deleted and an apology from the department. “Keeping it in your car during hot weather, exposing it to sun causing magnification of light through the bottle, and particularly being next to open flame while smoking in vehicles … can lead to disaster,” the department said.

While the post did, albeit in a somewhat jumbled manner, hint at the truth—at room temperature and above, hand sanitizer can ignite if met with an ignition source like a flame—many people misinterpreted the message to mean it can ignite purely from the heat inside a hot vehicle, which is false. “I didn’t realize or think about hand sanitizer possibly starting a fire in the car,” one person wrote on Twitter on May 28. Major news outlets fell victim to the confusion as well. “Hand sanitizer left in hot vehicles can explode, experts warn,” a headline from CBS News read. “Fire department warning: Hand sanitizer could explode in your car this summer,” the New York Post wrote.

Several of these articles, as well as the original Western Lakes Fire District post, pointed to an NFPA Journal Learn Something New™ video released on YouTube a month prior as proof that hand sanitizer can spontaneously ignite if left in a hot car. The problem was people seemed to misunderstand the content of the video, which indicates the flashpoint of many ABHS is around 63 degrees Fahrenheit—flashpoint, a technical term used to characterize the propensity of a liquid to burn, was being confused with ignition temperature. When a liquid’s flashpoint is reached, the liquid starts to give off enough vapors to ignite in air—but those vapors still need to be met with an ignition source to catch fire.

In a followup blog and video published by NFPA, Guy Colonna, director of Technical Services at NFPA, offered a clarification: “After you have those vapors come off because of that low flashpoint, you ultimately still have to get enough heat from whatever the ignition source is to be able to ignite that, and that’s called the ignition temperature. The ignition temperature of the [ABHS] are going to be something in excess of 700 degrees Fahrenheit.” Studies show a vehicle sitting in the scorching summer sun won’t get above 200 degrees Fahrenheit.


NFPA’s clarifying blog and video were picked up by USA Today, the popular fact-checking website Snopes, and dozens of local news sources. Additionally, the Western Lakes Fire District deleted its original post and wrote a new one to apologize and clear up the confusion.

“The open flame comment was to remind people that when hand sanitizer is wet on any surface it will ignite when exposed to flame,” the department said. “With the recent increase in utilization of this product we wanted to remind our customers that it’s important not to allow this to occur…We apologize for any confusion.”

FPW theme announced

In June, NFPA announced the theme of its 2020 Fire Prevention Week public education campaign: Serve up fire safety in the kitchen. This year’s Fire Prevention Week will kick off October 4 and run through October 10.

“Cooking continues to be a major contributor to the home fire problem,” said Lorraine Carli, NFPA vice president of Outreach and Advocacy. “The good news is that the vast majority of these fires are highly preventable. This year’s Fire Prevention Week campaign works to better educate the public about where potential cooking hazards exist and basic but critical ways to prevent them.”

The campaign theme is particularly timely this year, Carli added, given the coronavirus pandemic. “As the public may continue to avoid restaurants for some time and opt instead to do more cooking and entertaining at home, the potential for home cooking fires will likely increase as well,” she said. Some fire departments in the United States have already reported an uptick in kitchen fires during the pandemic. In Durham, North Carolina, for example, kitchen fires were up 88 percent in mid-May, according to local news reports.

Go to firepreventionweek.org to learn more about this year’s FPW campaign.

Policy Institute report sheds light on 2019 ecosystem successes, failures

A new report from the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute examines fires and other incidents from 2019 through the lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, indicating how each represents a breakdown of one or more of the eight components included in the Ecosystem.


The Notre Dame cathedral burns in July 2019. (Getty Images)

The report examines well-known incidents like the Notre Dame cathedral fire of July 2019, as well as lesser-known incidents including a daycare fire in Erie, Pennsylvania, in August that killed five children. “Safety is not luck,” the report says. “It is the joint effort of knowledge, preparation, oversight, and vigilance. This joint effort requires the strong and reliable performance of all eight of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem components. Weakness in one or more components creates conditions that attract risk.” Read the full report at nfpa.org/ecosystem.

New NFPA podcast out

The new NFPA Podcast series launched in June, with episodes on the legal cannabis industry and energy storage systems.

Hosts Jesse Roman and Angelo Verzoni, who also hosted the NFPA Journal Podcast, are joined by other NFPA staff members, including Derek Vigstol and Robby Dawson, on the series, which will feature new episodes every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. On tap for July are episodes on remote video inspections and residential fire sprinklers.

Listen and subscribe by visiting nfpa.org/podcasts.

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images