You have probably heard or read that using your mobile phone while getting your car refuelled at a petrol pump can have disastrous consequences. And it CAN. The people and articles that claim this are justified in doing so, as there have been several cases of petrol pump fires that have been linked to mobile phones. They may be right in their claim, but they are usually completely wrong in their explanation of the cause of the danger.
Most people and articles claim that the danger of using a mobile phone at a petrol pump arises from the radiation emitted by it. They claim that the radiation causes vapours of the fuel to ignite, which in turn leads to a fire or explosion. This, however, is not true. While it is known that mobile phones emit electromagnetic radiation, there is no evidence to support the claim that the radiation is enough to cause the vapours of fuel to ignite. Researchers have conducted tests and experiments and found that the amount of energy emitted by the phones is so low that it is of no immediate danger. Long term health effects associated with the continuous use of mobile phones have been known for a long time, but no short term or immediate dangers have ever been found. In all the reported cases of fires at petrol pumps that have been linked to mobile phones, not one was caused by radiation.
So if it is not the radiation emitted by the mobile phones, then what is it about them that make them dangerous at petrol pumps?
The answer to this is a simple one. A mobile phone, like many other electronic devices, runs on a battery or cell (hence the name “cell phone”). This battery produces an electric current which powers the device. In normal circumstances there is no danger associated with battery use. However if there is a fault in the battery or the circuit in which the battery is attached, several problems can arise. One of these problems is sparking. The formation of sparks is normally harmless, but it becomes very dangerous when it happens in close proximity to a flammable substance. And yes, petrol is very flammable. Now you see where the problems with using mobile phones at petrol pumps arise. If, by chance, a mobile phone battery produces a spark, there is a high likelihood that it will cause vapours of the fuel to ignite. This could possibly lead to a chain reaction ending in an explosion or a fire.
Despite how ominous this sounds, the probability that a mobile phone battery will actually produce a spark is tiny. Even if it does, the probability that the spark will come in contact will fuel vapours is tiny. All in all, the probability that a mobile phone will cause a fire or explosion at a petrol pump is virtually nil. There is probably a greater chance that your car’s engine will spontaneously explode!