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New Tests Show Flame Arresters Can Stop Gas Can Explosions

The portable plastic gas can industry has for the first time publicly released test results showing that explosions may be preventable if the cans include safety devices called flame arresters.

As NBC News reported in December, attorneys have filed at least 80 lawsuits against plastic gas can manufacturers during the past decade on behalf of plaintiffs severely burned in alleged “flashback” explosions of gasoline vapors inside the cans.

Some of the incidents involved individuals using gas to start or accelerate fires, but the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the cans themselves are dangerous because their spouts lack flame arresters -- pieces of mesh or disks with holes that can stop flame from spreading into the cans.

A technical standards group has been testing flame arresters, with gas can industry funding, since 2012, but had never released full test results. After NBC News inquiries last fall, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a statement calling on the industry to add flame arresters to its products. Six days before the NBC News report on gas cans aired in December, the technical standards group issued its first preliminary test results.

Tests reveal potential hazards of gas cans 5:27

On Wednesday, at an open public meeting in Rockville, Md., scientists working for the standards group released full test results for the first time. Ali Rangwala and Brian Elias of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s combustion lab reported that six of 14 flame arrester prototypes passed the test, meaning they prevented flame from passing into the cans and exploding vapor mixtures inside. Seven other designs failed, and one prototype was not tested.

All six of the designs that passed were plastic rather than metal. Of the seven designs that failed, two were metal flame arrester mesh designs included in metal gas cans currently marketed and sold as “safety” cans.

Phil Monckton, v.p. of gas can maker Scepter Corporation and chairman of the technical standards group, told NBC News that the new test results showed the industry is “making good progress,” but still needs to determine whether the flame arresters would work in different styles of cans under varied conditions.

“What they are determining is that there are some concepts that pass and some that fail, so there still is a fair bit of work that needs to be done on developing a concept that will be effective 100 percent of the time,” Monckton said.

Glen Stevick, a member of the standards group and a mechanical engineer at Berkeley Engineering and Research (BEAR), said he hoped to see flame arresters required for gas cans in the near future.

“This should have happened decades ago,” said Stevick, who has conducted research used by plaintiffs’ attorneys. “But I’m hopeful since the NBC exposure that the rate of progress increases, and we get a flame arrester regulation sometime this year.”

According to CPSC documents, the standards group began studying flame arresters as a possible solution to flashback explosions in 2007, and began considering making arresters a requirement in gas cans in 2008. The group, known as the ASTM F15.10 Subcommittee on Portable Fuel Containers, includes representatives of the testing labs, the industry and the CPSC.

There are no national statistics on the number of gas can explosions or injuries overall, but at the request of NBC News, the CPSC analyzed incident and injury databases. The CPSC counted at least 11 deaths and 1,200 emergency room visits involving gas can explosions during the pouring of gasoline since 1998.