Fire dept. warns about leaving hand sanitizer in your car on a warm day, sparking controversy

Fire dept. warns about leaving hand sanitizer in your car on a warm day, sparking controversy
Hand sanitizer and face masks are set out as church goers return to in-person service at Alamo Heights Baptist Church, Sunday, May 10, 2020, in San Antonio. (Source: AP)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to highlight the disputes some have had with the fire department’s claims. An image showing damage to a vehicle originally provided by the fire department was proven to not be caused by hand sanitizer.

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. (WMTV/Gray News) - A Wisconsin fire department warns about the dangers of leaving hand sanitizer in vehicles on a hot day. However, the post and similar ones have also drawn criticism over whether or not the risk actually exists.

In a post showing a burned-out car door, the Western Lakes Fire District explains most hand sanitizers are alcohol-based, making them flammable.

“Keeping it in your car during hot weather, 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,” the post read.

“Please respect the possibilities and be fire safe,” the fire department urges.

The fire district also warned of the risks of leaving clear water bottles in cars on a warm day.

In the post, the fire department including links to more information about flammable hand sanitizer and even a video on the subject.

The Controversy

As reports on the post spread across social media, questions about the validity of the claim started to arise.

The Poynter Institute of Media Studies reported similar warnings arose in Thailand and spread to Costa Rica and Brazil.

The image used in the Thai post, Poynter reported, matched the one used by the fire department. The school's article cited an AFP Thailand story which attributed the fire to two Saudis setting their door ablaze with an aerosol can and a lighter.

A further study, it noted, found hand sanitizer would need to reach a temperature of approximately 300 degrees to combust, while vehicles, which can get hot enough to injure or kill people and animals, could only reach 160 degrees.

WLFD stands by the warning

In a response to a commenter following its original post, the fire department appeared to acknowledge the image was meant to be representative, writing "It's a fire in a door panel. We frequently see the same issues and level of damage from smoking in vehicles."

Although, in the same comments, the department defended the overall message.

In a response to the point about how hot a vehicle would need to get to ignite the sanitizer, the department replied that the interior would not need to reach 300 degrees. It stated that light focused through the clear plastic container could, in fact, raise the temperature inside the bottle well above the car's interior.

"This is the difference we are talking about," it said. "Clear water bottles have been known to focus light to the point that they boil the water and explode. It's also possible when other substances are heated to extreme temperatures."

The department added that such an instance would be more likely in the summer because greater sunshine means hotter cars.

Our goal in the WLFD  is to provide timely, accurate, and educational information while responding to the needs of our...

Posted by Western Lakes Fire District on Thursday, May 21, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this story utilized the image in the fire department’s post. It has since been removed from the article because of new information about its sourcing. However, the post that originally contained the image is still attached to this story in order to let people continue to read the fire department’s full statement. The disputed photo is no longer on the Facebook post.

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