Fire Dept. warns about leaving hand sanitizer in your car on a warm day, sparking controversy

Published: May. 21, 2020 at 9:58 AM CDT
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An Oconomowoc fire department's warning about the dangers of leaving hand sanitizer in their vehicles on a hot day. However, the post and similar ones have also drawn criticism over whether or not the risk actually exists.

In a post showing a burned-out car door, the Western Lakes Fire District explains most hand sanitizers are alcohol-based, making them flammable.

“Keeping it in your car during hot weather, exposing it to sun, and particularly being next to open flame while smoking in vehicles or grilling while enjoying this weekend can lead to disaster,” the post read.

“Please respect the possibilities and be fire safe,” the fire department urges.

The fire district also warned of the risks of leaving clear water bottles in cars on a warm day.

In the post, the fire department including links

about flammable hand sanitizer and even

on the subject.

Following the nationwide coverage of the post and the response it elicited, the fire department has since rewritten much of the post, addressing some of the criticisms, while maintaining the core message is important.

"Our message quickly came became misconstrued and we wanted to assure that we made it right," it continued. "We apologize for any confusion and wish you an enjoyable holiday weekend."

The Controversy

As reports on the original post spread across social media, including a story on NBC15, questions about the validity of the claim started to arise.

The Poynter Institute of Media Studies reported similar warnings arose in Thailand and spread to Costa Rica and Brazil.

The image used in the Thai post,

, matched the one used by the fire department. The school's article cited an AFP Thailand story which attributed the fire to two Saudis setting their door ablaze with an aerosol can and a lighter.

A further study, Poynter noted, found hand sanitizer would need to reach a temperature of approximately 300 degrees to combust, while vehicles, which can get hot enough to injure or kill people and animals, could only reach 160 degrees.

WLFD stands by the warning

In a response to a commenter following its original post, the fire department appeared to acknowledge the image was meant to be representative, writing "It's a fire in a door panel. We frequently see the same issues and level of damage from smoking in vehicles."

The updated WLFD post followed up on that point, explaining the image was not from an actual incident of hand sanitizer catching fire and that it was only meant to illustrate what a general door fire.

"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," the fire department wrote.

Although, in the original comment thread and in the revised post, the department defended the overall message. It pointed to the links included in its original post (included above).

In a response to the point about how hot a vehicle would need to get to ignite the sanitizer, the department replied that the interior would not need to reach 300 degrees. It stated that light focused through the clear plastic container could, in fact, raise the temperature inside the bottle well above the car's interior.

"This is the difference we are talking about," one of its responses said. "Clear water bottles have been known to focus light to the point that they boil the water and explode. It's also possible when other substances are heated to extreme temperatures."

The department added that such an instance would be more likely in the summer because greater sunshine means hotter cars.

The new post also addressed concerns about how hand sanitizer can ignite when exposed to flame. The fire department stated that, with the greater use of sanitizer, its goal was remind people that is possible.

"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," the post read. "We simply want our customers to be happy healthy and well and most importantly enjoy the time they have together with family and friends."

Ed. NOTE: The original version of this story utilized the image in the fire department's post. It has since been removed from the article because of new information about its sourcing. However, the post containing the image is still attached to this story, in order to let people continue to read the fire department's full statement.

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Posted by Western Lakes Fire District on Thursday, May 21, 2020