Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: Document pictures employee whose hands caught on fire when he lit a cigarette after using a hand sanitizer product.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, 2007]
Origins: This warning, which pictures and describes an
The consumer relations group at
We are unable to ascertain the origins of the document and so cannot verify authorship or the accuracy of the contents. The views or opinions expressed in the document do not necessarily reflect the views of the company.As it turns out, the photographs embedded in the document have nothing to do with hand sanitizer; they depict burns received in an electrical accident:
Hand sanitizers are widely available to Chevron employees at many of our office locations and we encourage use of such products to prevent the spread of germs that can lead to illness.
The hands on the Purell hand sanitizer page belong to an electrician who worked at the Idaho National Lab. His hands were injured when he was installingBut even though the photographs don't correspond to the text, could an accident like the one described occur?
Hand sanitizers are typically alcohol-based gels containing isopropanol and/or ethyl alcohol, both of which are flammable. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer includes that the product contains both those compounds (primarily the latter), but how likely such a gel might be to catch fire and burn depends upon a number of factors, including the concentration of water, moisturizing agents, and other elements present in the product.
We conducted a few simple experiments and found that even a small amount of Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer spread on a (non-organic) surface could easily be ignited by the briefest touch of an open flame, although the resulting fire burned relatively cool and was easily extinguished:
A 1998 Federal Aviation Administration fire-testing study of an ethanol-based gel hand cleaner found that the product was "often difficult to ignite and can be extinguished relatively easily," although none of its trials involved igniting gel while it was in contact with skin.
Last updated: 25 January 2007
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