Waukegan Fire Department Warns Motorists Not to Store Hand Sanitizers in Vehicles During Hot Summer After Vehicle Fire

Vehicle fire connected to alcohol hand sanitizer storage (Waukegan Fire Department)
Vehicle fire connected to alcohol hand sanitizer storage (Waukegan Fire Department)

NFPA Journal’s Angelo Verzoni interviews Guy Colonna, director of Technical Services at NFPA, about whether hand sanitizer can spontaneously ignite in a hot car. This topic has come up as we enter the warmer summer months and more people than ever are using hand sanitizer to fight the global coronavirus pandemic.

Waukegan firefighters responded to a vehicle fire about 12:45 p.m. Thursday June 18, 2020 in the block of 400 Pioneer Road in a residential neighborhood in Waukegan. According to the fire department, the vehicle fire is believed to be connected in some way to a hand sanitizer container containing alcohol. The Waukegan Fire Department shared photos from the vehicle fire because after the “preliminary investigation was completed, the fire appeared to be caused by the owner’s small bottle of hand sanitizer that was left on the dashboard.” Significant damage occurred to the vehicle dashboard.

Waukegan Fire Department stated that the owner had been refilling with 80% alcohol sanitizer that was supplied by their employer. Waukegan Fire Department stated that it appears sunlight shining through the windshield onto the sanitizer was enough to cause ignition.

The fire was extinguished prior to the arrival of Waukegan firefighters and the owner had only sprayed a small amount of water through a small hole in the windshield during efforts to extinguish the fire. Nothing inside the vehicle was wet, which gave the impression that the fire extinguished due to lack of oxygen.

The Waukegan Fire Department stated that they are aware of other incidents similar to this incident as more and more people are using a higher alcohol concentration of hand sanitizer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the heat of summer is near the Waukegan Fire Department stated that officials STRONGLY recommend that hand sanitizers not be stored in cars.

Three factors are usually need for combustion or fire: Fuel (e.g., alcohol), vapors that mix with air, and ignition sources (a spark or flame).

Combustion or Kindle Factors

Flash Point: The lowest temperature at which a liquid gives off vapors that ignite if given an ignition source (a flame or spark).

Ignition Source: Open flame or spark.

Autoignition Temperature: The lowest temperature at which a flammable liquid spontaneously ignites in a normal atmosphere without a flame or spark.

Although autoignition temperature (AIT) is indispensable information to safely handle and operate flammable substances, the AITs reported in different data compilations are, however, very diverse. In this work, the AITs of six frequently used alcohols are measured in compliance with the ASTM E659 method, according to an article published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Chemical & Engineering Data.

Measured AITs …

(433.1 ± 8.7) °C, 811°F

(368.8 ± 7.4) °C, 695°F

(380.0 ± 7.6) °C, 716°F

(397.1 ± 8.0) °C, 746.78°F

(314.0 ± 6.3) °C, 597.2°F

(409.8 ± 8.2) °C 769.64°F

The boiling point of ethanol is about 172°F. Vaporization occurs at a faster rate at higher temperatures, even below 172°F, but boiling is the rapid vaporization of a liquid, eventually converting a liquid to all vapor. Interior car temperatures in the sun maxed out at about 150°F in a study published in Pediatrics International in 2011. Vapors might be more likely to contact an ignition source suddenly when ethanol is evaporating at a faster rate. Since the autoignition temperature of ethanol is almost 700°F, a car fire caused by hand sanitizer would probably have to involve some type of ignition source — a spark or a flame that was unknown or not admitted to investigators. The other possibilities would be that (1) the ethanol was somehow contaminated and another chemical composition involving heat may have caused autoignition; or (2) an unknown magnifying glass effect created a focal point of sunlight that created heat that reached or exceeded the autoignition temperature of ethanol. According to discussions on Physics StackExchange and Researchgate, deliberate efforts to use a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight-generating heat can exceed the ethanol autoignition temperature of 695°F (possibly by a factor of three or more). Although not a high probability over multiple situations, it is possible that an accidental focal point concentrating sunlight and heat could exceed the autoignition temperature of ethanol under the right circumstances.

Google Calculation: 5750°K in °F = 9890.33°F

ResearchGate | How much heat can concentrated sunlight produce?

StackExchange (PHYSICS) | Highest temperature possible to achieve using magnifying glass and sunlight [duplicate]

FYI: Snopes, says no, not possible.

Sugimura T, Suzue J, Kamada M, et al. Increase of child car seat temperature in cars parked in the outpatient parking lot. Pediatr Int. 2011;53(6):939-943. doi:10.1111/j.1442-200X.2011.03396.x

Chan-Cheng Chen, Horng-Jang Liaw, Chi-Min Shu, and Yen-Cheng Hsieh Autoignition Temperature Data for Methanol, Ethanol, Propanol, 2-Butanol, 1-Butanol, and 2-Methyl-2,4-pentanediol. Journal of Chemical & Engineering Data 2010 55 (11), 5059-5064
DOI: 10.1021/je100619p

Vehicle fire connected to alcohol hand sanitizer storage (Waukegan Fire Department)
Vehicle fire connected to alcohol hand sanitizer storage (Waukegan Fire Department).
Vehicle fire connected to alcohol hand sanitizer storage (Waukegan Fire Department)
Vehicle fire connected to alcohol hand sanitizer storage (Waukegan Fire Department)
Vehicle fire connected to alcohol hand sanitizer storage (Waukegan Fire Department)
Vehicle fire connected to alcohol hand sanitizer storage (Waukegan Fire Department).



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