Are Fire Pots On Their Way Out?

(May 7, 2012) – The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) voted unanimously to publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, following 65 incidents of burns from firepots that exploded, 34 victims were hospitalized and two resulted in death. Before the vote, the CPSC announced multiple recalls of the gel fuels, according to Consumer Reports.  The CPSC recalled 2 million jugs of gel fuel made by 9 manufacturers. From April 2010, there have been a total of 86 injury victims, many of whom were severe, 48 victims were hospitalized.

In September 2011, the CPSC and the nine manufacturers and importers of the fuel gel announced that they were voluntarily removing all of their products from store shelves “due to the serious risks of flash fire and burns when consumers add pourable gel to an already burning firepot.” When the fuel runs low, it is difficult for the users to see the dregs in the bottom of the cup, emitting volatile vapors. The CPSC warned: “consumers should immediately stop using the pourable gel fuel.”  The recall involved an estimated 2 million units of pourable gel fuels, sold since 2008, and packaged in one-quart plastic bottles and one-gallon plastic jugs.

Firepots, fueled by the alcohol-based gel, are portable, decorative lighting accents for use indoors, as well as outdoors. According to the CPSC, firepots were first introduced for sale in 2010, with 2.5 million units sold since then. They are usually ceramic, although some are partly enclosed in glass, but all contain an open stainless steel cup, which holds the alcohol-based gel, which produces a large flame. These firepots are currently unregulated by voluntary or mandatory standards.

The New York Times described the firepot explosions in May 2011 as “napalm.” The gel “exploded in a flash, stuck to skin and clothing, and refused to stop burning,” the Times said. Both of the reported severe incidents involved FireGel, then marketed as “the safe pourable gel.” Napa Home and Garden, manufacturer of FireGel removed the product, then issued a recall in conjunction with the CPSC.

The risks associated with firepots fueled with gel, differ from typical fireplace risks. Specifically:

–      water does not put out a gel fire but may make it worse

–      when a person catches on fire from the firepot, “stop, drop and roll” does not extinguish the flames.

–      smothering the flames also does not work

–      patting the fire off someone can spread the gel and the fire onto the person trying to put out the fire

–      dry powder extinguishers will put out a gel fire, specifically ABC or BC rated dry chemical or dry power fire extinguisher

–      pouring gel onto a hot fire pot might result in an explosion

One of the major problems is the lack of adequate warnings to consumers. Under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the gel fuel is required to have a warning label regarding the flammability hazard. Most comply, but for a product that possesses such great danger, the warning needs to be clear, as opposed to the generic warning currently labeled, “Keep away from children.” The labels do not state consequences and give no pictorial symbols referring to burn risks.

The purpose of the CPSC in following up with the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, is to determine if they can create a rule to prevent or reduce the risk of injury, establish a mandatory warning rule or ban the product completely.

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