CPSC Tries to Put the Lid on Fire Pots

In May 28, 2011 a 14 year-old boy in Riverhead, N.Y. suffered severe third-degree burns from a fire pot that exploded as he poured fuel into it.  Today he still struggles to recover. In June, Brent Miller, a 51-year-old property manager from Kissimmee, Florida, died after a 33-day hospitalization. Miller was pouring fuel into a fire pot, when it exploded, setting Miller, his wife, plants and other objects on the lanai aflame.

Scenarios such as these have prompted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate so-called fire pots, and the alcohol-based gel that fuels them. Fire pots are portable, decorative “lighting accents,” used both indoors and out. According to the CPSC, firepots were introduced into the marketplace in 2010, with 2.5 million units sold since then. They are often ceramic; some are partially enclosed by glass, and all contain an open stainless steel cup to hold the alcohol-based gel that produces a large flame. They are currently unregulated by voluntary or mandatory standards.

In September, the CPSC and nine manufacturers and importers of the fuel gel announced that they were voluntarily pulling all of their products from store shelves “due to the serious risks of flash fire and burns when consumers add pourable gel to an already burning fire pot.” The CPSC advised: “consumers should immediately stop using the pourable gel fuel.” The recall involved an estimated 2 million units of pourable gel fuels, sold since 2008, and packaged in one-quart plastic bottles and one-gallon plastic jugs.

The CPSC has followed up with an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to determine if it can create a rule that would prevent or reduce the injury risk, establish a mandatory warning rule or ban the product entirely.

The CPSC has been tracking incidents involving firepots used with gel fuel since June 2011 after the first severe injury was reported. There are multiple ways to cause a firepot or fuel explosion and fire: refilling the firepot; a spontaneous explosion of the fire pot while in use, explosion of a fuel bottle placed in proximity to a burning firepot, explosion of the fire pot; the fuel cup spontaneously ejecting, explosions while extinguishing the flame and accidentally tipping over the fire pot. As of September 30, it identified 76 incidents involving firepots used with gel fuel that resulted in 2 deaths and 86 injuries. The CPSC’s Office of Compliance and Field Operations initiated 12 voluntary recalls last year of pourable alcohol gel fuel.

The gel fuel is composed of about 80 percent alcohol – typically ethanol, isopropanol, or a combination of the two, mixed with water, gelling agents, and insect-repellent additives, such as citronella and eucalyptus. It has a much higher viscosity than gasoline, for example, with the consistency of molasses. The gel produces a clean-burning flame with no visible smoke or ash. When the fuel runs low, it is difficult for users to see the dregs in the bottom of the cup, emitting volatile vapors and the attendant flame. In an explosion, the fuel acts like napalm, splattering outward and sticking to whatever it hits. This causes the fire to spread when responders and victims try to smother the flame by wiping it off. The strategy of stop, drop and roll also spreads the burning surface. Even water – if used in insufficient quantities, will disperse, rather than smother, the flames.

The majority of the injuries and both fatalities occurred when a consumer pouring more fuel into a firepot caused an explosion. Many injuries have been severe: of the 86 injury victims, 48 of them were hospitalized.

One of the major problems is the lack of adequate warnings. Under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the gel fuel it is required to have a warning label regarding the flammability hazard. Most comply, but the warnings are still inadequate – one in a long list of directions, many of them generic, such as “Keep away from children.” There are no explanations of the consequences and no pictorial symbols.

As with firepots, consumers are not likely to perceive the hazard posed by gel fuel. Gel fuel containers often are packaged in containers that look familiar, resembling water bottles. They do not have any special closures, such as child-resistant packaging, that might alert a consumer to the potential hazard. The containers may have phrases such as ‘environmentally friendly,’ ‘ecofriendly,’ ‘live safe, burn safe,’ and ‘non-toxic’ that may reduce the likelihood that a consumer would consider the substance to be hazardous. This may lead consumers to ignore warnings on the product.”