Fire district modifies, but doesn’t reverse, warning on hand sanitizer that caused stir on social media

The claim that hand sanitizer will cause fires in vehicles not supported by research
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OCONOMOWOC, Wis. — A Wisconsin fire department warned people an item that’s become a hot commodity for safety and health during the coronavirus pandemic could pose a danger in vehicles as temperatures warm, causing a stir on social media.

The Western Lakes Fire District, which serves eleven municipalities in Waukesha, Dodge, and Jefferson counties, posted a photo to its Facebook page May 21 showing fire damage to a vehicle’s driver’s side door. The department has since removed the photo since it was not from a fire caused by hand sanitizer.

USA Today reported that the claim that hand sanitizers left in vehicles in warm temperatures could cause fires is not supported by research.

In an updated post, the fire district said the original post meant to prevent fire or injury, as it said alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said is a simple and effective way to prevent the spread of pathogens and infections, is flammable.

“While infrequent, there have been cases in the recent past were reflecting light placed through a clear bottle was able to focus onto a combustible surface and cause a fire,” the updated post said. “This has primarily been through water bottles, but since hand sanitizer is often stored in the same vessel we wanted to pass it along for your safety.”

The fire district said it still wanted to remind people that wet hand sanitizer is flammable and to be careful using it around an open flame.

“Exposing it to sun, and particularly being next to open flame while smoking in vehicles or grilling while enjoying this weekend can lead to disaster,” WLFD wrote on its original Facebook post. “Please respect the possibilities and be fire safe.”

The fire district also shared a link to a National Fire Protection Association video that includes what safety considerations should be made when storing hand sanitizer.

NFPA posted a follow up video Friday with its Director of Technical Services Guy Colonna saying that while it is possible under rare circumstances, it’s not likely.

“It is unlikely that spontaneous combustion, and ultimately spontaneous ignition, is the result,” Colonna said.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story referenced the Western Lakes Fire District’s original Facebook post on May 21, which warned of leaving hand sanitizer in cars or using it near an open flame. The updated version includes an updated post from the fire district. News 3 Now has removed the photo provided by the fire district, which showed the remains of a car door fire that was not caused by hand sanitizer as implied by the post. 

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