Just when you thought your 4th of July celebration during a pandemic couldn’t be any riskier . . .
A fire department in Greensboro, North Carolina is warning citizens not to handle fireworks after using coronavirus-killing hand sanitizer.
Hand sanitizers kill germs thanks to their high alcohol content — usually 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol. But this fact also makes the personal hygiene product highly flammable, and even the fumes from a small amount on your hands could be enough to turn your sparkler into a “screamer.” (That’s you screaming, not the fireworks.)
“Keep in mind, if you are using consumer fireworks this year, DO NOT USE HAND SANITIZER AT THE SAME TIME!” warns the City of Greensboro Fire Department in a recent Facebook post.
“Wash your hands only with soap and water. Hand Sanitizer is flammable!” the post urges.
In another post, the first responders share a YouTube demonstration by Dee Shelton, the Fire and Life Safety Educator with the Greensboro Fire Department.
“We want to share some info with you about hand sanitizer, which we’re using a lot right now,” Shelton begins. “We got fireworks coming up, grilling season. Even if you just light a cigarette, any type of open fire — the hazard with using hand sanitizer.”
She explains that alcohol burns “clean,” which means “it has a blue flame instead of the orange flame.”
“So you may not even know that it’s on fire,” she says, suggesting that blue flames can be more difficult to see.
In the video experiment, she can be seen spreading a nickel-size amount of generic hand sanitizer gel onto an aluminum foil surface. With a long-reach butane lighter in hand, she warns viewers to “not try this at home” before igniting the alcohol-laden foil.
As foretold, the flame produced is very difficult to see, even in the dimly lit area where Shelton films. But when the lights go out, the bright blue flame is clearly visible.
From nearly 2 feet away, she says, “I can feel the heat from it right here.” The flame continues to burn off the sanitizing gel for several seconds as the clip comes to an end.
“Instead of hand sanitizer, just use soap and water,” she concludes.
Hand sanitizer has played a crucial part in coronavirus prevention, and many have relied on the quick-drying disinfecting toiletry to safely go about their days during the pandemic. However, local fire departments have been on high alert during this time over fears that consumers may be mishandling the potentially dangerous product.
In May, the Western Lakes Fire District of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin also asked their community to be mindful of the flammability of alcohol-based cleansers and suggested that a hot car might be enough to set it off.
“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 or grilling while enjoying this weekend — can lead to disaster,” they explained in a Facebook post, which has since been removed.
However, citizen scientists of Facebook were quick to correct the fire department, citing information from the National Fire Protection Association which says that spontaneous combustion is not plausible — a spark would be required to ignite the bottle, even in the hottest car imaginable.
“Flashpoint does not equal ignition temperature,” the NFPA wrote in a March 22 blog post on its website.
“Spontaneous ignition . . . involves a substance self-heating to a point where it ignites, without the need for any outside ignition source like a flame,” they explained. “Hand sanitizer is not subject to self-heating and would require temperatures to reach over 700 degrees Fahrenheit to spontaneously ignite.”
To be clear, fireworks (and the match required to light one) are plenty enough to set your alcohol-smeared hands ablaze, so be sure to avoid hand sanitizers while handling fire and explosives.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to avoid nine brands of hand sanitizers which they found contained dangerous levels of methanol, a type of alcohol that is highly toxic to humans if absorbed through the skin.
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