WASHINGTON — A bill tucked into the large spending legislation President Donald Trump signed into law on Sunday will require that portable fuel containers, including plastic gas cans, include "flame mitigation devices" to help prevent explosions from igniting inside them.
The "Portable Fuel Container Safety Act of 2020'' establishes "performance standards to protect against portable fuel container explosions near open flames or other ignition sources" and directs the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to "promulgate a final rule to require flame mitigation devices in portable fuel containers" within the next two and a half years.
A report issued by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to accompany the original version of the proposed legislation in 2019 cited the findings of a 2013 NBC News investigation of portable plastic gasoline containers.
The NBC News investigation found that under certain conditions, the containers were susceptible to explosions that could cause severe burns.
The new law comes after a long battle to force the container industry to add such devices to plastic gas cans and other fuel containers. During the past several decades, more than 80 lawsuits filed on behalf of plaintiffs have alleged that portable gas cans had exploded and caused serious burns, some of them fatal.
One of the lawsuits was filed by Karen Kornegay of Louisiana, whose 19-year-old son Dylan died in 2010 after suffering severe burns over 80 percent of his body. A can he had used to ignite a bonfire allegedly exploded and sprayed him with flaming gasoline.
While Kornegay acknowledges her son should not have used a gas can to ignite a bonfire — as the container industry warns never to do — she told NBC News she believed the container's design was to blame for the severity of his injuries.
Kornegay's lawsuit and others claimed that the containers were unsafe and defective, susceptible to "flashback" explosions because their designs did not include any flame mitigation devices.
A flashback explosion can occur when vapor escaping the can contacts a flame or a spark. The vapor can ignite and "flash back" inside the can.
One type of flame mitigation device, called a "flame arrester," which is usually pieces of mesh or disks with holes meant to disrupt flame, is used in metal "safety" gas cans, fuel tanks, and some containers of other flammable liquids, such as some charcoal lighter fluid brands and even some liquor bottles. But until the new law there was no federal requirement for some portable fuel containers.
Kornegay was overjoyed to learn the design changes had become law. "If I could be speechless I would be speechless, because it is something that has weighed so heavy on my heart," she said. "We remember all the children and adults and people that this happened to."
Another mother, Margrett Lewis of Sonoma, California, was a driving force behind passage of the new law. One of her twin daughters was severely burned when she and her sister attempted to pour a fireplace fuel product into a ventless fireplace from a container with no flame arrester.
According to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who sponsored the original legislation in 2019, Lewis "championed the drafting and passage of the bill."
"Flame accidents have tragic consequences, but the solution is smaller than a dime and cheaper than a nickel," said Thompson in a press release issued by his office.
"It's bittersweet," said Lewis in the same release. "This law, too late to save my daughter from the horrors of a burn unit, ensures that every year, [thousands] will be protected from tragic burn injuries and death. I'm so proud of her and her twin sister for moving forward."
Contacted by phone this week, Lewis was blunt in describing her motivation. “I can’t have anybody else getting burned,” she said.
The 2013 NBC News investigation reported on tests the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts had conducted with the support of the gas can industry — into whether the portable plastic gas container were susceptible to flashback explosions.
The test results showed that under certain limited conditions — including a very low volume of gasoline left inside — such explosions are possible.
The day after the NBC News investigation aired on the TODAY show and posted on NBCNews.com, the CPSC called for manufacturers to add flame arresters to plastic gas cans.
After NBC News' investigation, WPI continued two additional phases of testing, also with the industry's support, into whether flame mitigation devices such as flame arresters could help prevent explosions.
That testing found they did, concluding in 2016 that mitigation devices are "necessary" to address possible explosions, and reporting that some prototype designs for the devices had passed safety, durability and functionality tests.
Ali S. Rangwala, the professor of Fire Protection Engineering who conducted the testing at WPI's combustion lab, is pleased by the new requirement.
"I am so happy," he told NBC News in a text, "that the work we have done is now signed into law."
The industry had already agreed to a new technical standard two years ago, in late 2018. A committee consisting of industry representatives, consumer safety advocates and CPSC officials established "performance requirements for Flame Mitigation Devices (FMDs) in portable fuel containers." "A flame mitigation device," it stated, "shall be provided in each PFC opening to protect the container opening(s) from possible propagation of a flame into a flammable fuel-air mixture within the container."
Reporting that development on its website, the Portable Fuel Container Manufacturers Association noted that containers meeting the standard "are already being produced."
The PFCMA said its member manufacturers began "the introduction of flame mitigation devices on almost all of their PFCs starting about three years ago" in 2017. It said that it "enthusiastically supports the new law as part of our members' unwavering focus on the safety of their products for consumers," and described the addition of the flame mitigation device as "an extra measure of safety for consumers who, despite common knowledge of the risks, misuse gasoline to start or accelerate a fire."
The PFCMA emphasized that consumers should never use gasoline to start or accelerate a fire.
The law signed Sunday includes a long timeline, directing the CPSC to make its final rule "not later than 30 months" after the law's enactment date. It also includes an "exception," directing that the requirements of the "voluntary [industry] standard…be treated as a consumer product safety rule" if the CPSC determines they meet the conditions of the law.