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June 17, 2009

Physician warns about letting kids pump gas

The picture that appeared Tuesday on Page A1 of The Sun alongside my article on rising gas prices was a great shot by Barbara Haddock Taylor: an adorable 4-year-old girl helping her mother  pump gas. It was an image that told a  mini-story of the relationship between mother and daughter and a child's desire to act grown-up.

Mother and  daughter pump gas

Sun photo/Barbara Haddock Taylor

But that picture also depicted an activity that could be hazardous to children, as Dr. William D. Hakkarinen pointed out.

If I had the camera, I would have taken the same shot -- if not quite as well. A photographer's job is to portray life as it is, not as it should be. But the doctor raises a good question about whether displaying such an image on the top of the front page was a good decision on The Sun's part.

The doctor does a better job of explaining the hazards than I could, so I'll let him do so in his own words:

Dear Mr. Dresser,
The photo illustrating your story on rising gasoline prices, SUN, June 16, 2009, has a happy look: the 4-year old is helping mom pump the gas. It does illustrate, however, how so many people are unaware of the significant risks for children in such activity. This child is in a dangerous position.

As a Family Physician, I am well aware of the problem of asthma and other respiratory issues in childhood. Gasoline emissions and fumes from refueling are a major contributor to our air pollution. I do not think the average person is aware of the extreme toxic irritation of gasoline vapors.


Unleaded gasoline uses Methyl tert-butyl ether as an additive to increase octane levels and reduce emissions. As the Environmental Protection Agency notes on its Web Site: Acute inhalation has resulted in Central Nervous System effects including ataxia and abnormal gait. Motorists and gas station attendants have also reported symptoms of coughing, burning, headache, dizziness, and other complaints after exposure. The substance damages the brain and nervous system.

Another of the many noxious fumes in gasoline is benzene. This substance is a well-known cancer-causing agent. It also has the potential to cause anemia and other blood diseases including leukemia. The highest concentration of all these fumes is right at the gas tank level, the level of a small child's face. It is clearly unwise for a child to be placed in a position to inhale the fumes.

There is also the risk of splash-back. With a small child's face near the hose, any splash is more likely to damage eyes, nose, and mucous membranes of the mouth. Even the best of automatic shut-offs will spit back on occasion. In case of gasoline contact with the eyes, they should be immediately flushed with clean, low-pressure water for at least 15 minutes. Medical attention should be obtained.

Although fortunately rare, explosions are a possibility. Static electricity is usually the cause. Static can happen if one slides back into the car seat before filling is complete, and then returns to the pump and touches the hose or car. One such event happened in February this year in the Richmond, VA, area, when a mother handed the hose to her 10-year old son to replace in the pump. Both were burned severely in the explosion caused by a static spark.

Do not get back in your vehicle when refueling or allow others to do so; re-entry could cause a static spark.

Warning labels and instructions for safe practices are on each self-service gasoline pump, but they are small and many people are unaware of them. Pumping gasoline is generally safe, but not for children. As the rules on the warning labels say, Don't allow those under license age to use the pump.

William D. Hakkarinen, MD
Past-President, Maryland Academy of Family Physicians

Posted by Michael Dresser at 8:32 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: On the roads


Asthma aside...

Kids do dumb and unpredictable things. The straight up safety issues related to pumping gasoline should be more than enough to keep kids well away from the dispenser.

Even older kids who should know better...
it just isn't worth the risk.

The doctor's comments were partly right. MTBE is not used anymore in most states, including Maryland - it has been replaced by ethanol (while dangerous in its own right, lots of people still drink it..). Also, all newer gas pumps have devices that prevent fumes from escaping during fueling as part of pollution control.

Fortunately, static discharge fires are extremely rare. The odds are hardly worth considering.

I wouldn't want my kids to be splashed with gasoline either and they should be carefully supervised, but don't deny kids the ability to help out. Just use some common sense.

Any parent with a shred of common sense would not let their small child as close to the gas pump/open gas tank as this little child is. It's great if your child wants to participate and help out, but this is not an instance where participation by a small child should be allowed/encouraged.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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