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Can an "easy fix" curb dangers of containers holding flammable fuel?

A proposed bill in Congress aims to cut the number of Americans burned in so-called “flame jetting” incidents, when a container holding flammable fuel can become something akin to a flamethrower. The injuries can be devastating.

This happens with flammable liquids, like the gasoline you use for your lawn mower, fireplace fuels, liquor and even nail polish remover. Advocates say all of those could put you at risk and are missing what they say is a needed safety measure, reports CBS News correspondent Anna Werner.

Aubrey Clark was 17 when a 2011 gasoline accident changed her life and lost her her voice. She was at a friend’s house for her birthday party with a few friends when one friend got near an outdoor fire with a gasoline can. Clark was some 10 feet away but said flames shot out of the can.

“It was like a fire-breathing dragon or like a flame thrower,” Clark said. 

Aubrey Clark (right) with her mother before a 2011 gasoline accident Courtesy of the Clark family

She was burned over 30 percent of her body and has had more than 25 surgeries, all due to a phenomenon investigators call “flame jetting.” How does something like it happen?

Adam St. John’s team at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began investigating flame-jetting events in 2010.

“The very first test that we did here in the lab, we had a flame jet over 10 feet long out of the container,” St. John said. “Then all of the sudden you’ll see the jet encompass the victim.”

Adam St. John’s team at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began investigating flame-jetting events in 2010. ATF

In slow motion, you can see how vapors coming out of a container can ignite, forcing flaming liquid to jet out several feet.

“We watch the vapors ignite, they pressurize, and they push out the liquid in the bottom of the container. ... Well over five feet at this point,” St. John said.

It all took less than a second, he said. 

It’s something Clark’s mother, Tonia, an ATF employee herself, didn’t know until St. John showed her the tests.

“When you actually saw this for yourself and realized that’s what happened to your daughter, what was that like for you?” Werner asked.

“Horrific, horrific,” Tonia said. 

What outrages Clark and other burn victim advocates is they say there’s a simple solution to the flame-jetting problem: metal or plastic screens known as flame arrestors. 

“This technology has been around forever. It stops the flame from migrating through the openings in that screen,” St. John said.

In fact, when St. John and his team ran the same flame-jetting tests using containers with flame arrestors, the flame didn’t make it past the mitigation device.

Researchers and burn victim advocates say there’s a simple solution to the flame-jetting problem: metal or plastic screens known as flame arrestors. ATF

“We’ve never had a flame jet in any of the testing we did with a flame mitigation device,” St. John said.

Manufacturers say it isn’t that simple. The Portable Fuel Containers Manufacturers Association (PCFMA) would not go on camera but on its website said the containers are “entirely safe when used properly.” In a statement, PCFMA told CBS News that designs suggested in the past “failed and, in many cases, caused additional safety issues.” (See full statement below.)

But California Congressman Mike Thompson said manufacturers’ efforts have taken far too long.

“I think they missed the boat. And in doing so, I think they put the American public at risk,” Thompson said.

The manufacturers disagree, pointing out they are supporting work by a committee to establish a voluntary standard where “workable designs have just been created.” But Thompson said that committee has been meeting for nearly a decade. He’s introduced a bill for the government to require flame mitigation devices in those containers. 

“This is an easy fix. We ought to be able to fix it. We’re going to fix it. And we’re going to save lives,” Thompson said.

The manufacturers’ association said they support Thompson’s legislation and will adopt standards put forth. 

Meanwhile, some companies have adopted flame mitigation technology: one gas can manufacturer, called No-Spill, began selling cans just this month that has new technology designed to stop flame jetting. The company president told CBS News it’s meant to enhance safety. But he and other manufacturers insist that no flame mitigation device will ever make it safe to pour gasoline on a fire.

Statement from PFCMA: “The Portable Fuel Container Manufacturers Association (PFCMA) supports the Thompson legislation as introduced and looks forward to its successful passage. The industry has supported work to study this issue by independent experts and the CPSC. We have been an active supporter of testing conducted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a contractor of ASTM International, to identify a standard and designs that work, are safe, and enable portable fuel containers to function effectively as intended. Portable fuel containers in the United States are used billions of times each year without incident. While members of the PFCMA support development of a new consumer product safety rule, it is important to note that no flame mitigation device will ever make it safe to pour gasoline on a fire or near other ignition sources.”

In response to the concerns of Rep. Thompson and some advocates, PCFMA provided these additional comments:

“The industry has always followed whatever guidelines and standards are set by the CPSC. The reality is that through comprehensive and robust independent testing, which the industry has always supported, workable designs have just been created. For years there were calls to add certain designs on the belief that they would increase the safety of the containers and those designs failed and, in many cases, caused additional safety issues. The industry could not adopt technology that didn’t work, nor would anyone, including the CPSC, want it to or allow it to.”

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