ROCK FALLS, Ill. — A Waukegan, Illinois man was enjoying a nice sunny day earlier this month when he walked to his window, looked outside and saw his car engulfed in flames.
Now fire officials are warning people not to leave hand sanitizer in their cars, especially if it will be exposed to direct sunlight.
Rock Falls-Sterling Fire Chief Gary Cook said the ingredients in hand sanitizer makes it a fire hazard. “The first thing to remember is that hand sanitizer, especially today, is anywhere from 60 to 80 percent alcohol,” Cook said.
“So, remember, alcohol is a flammable product. So, what can happen in the vehicles, and it could even uniquely happen in a home, is the prism effect.”
Cook said if the sun comes through the window and hits the bottle of hand sanitizer at a certain angle it can ignite. Cook understands that everyone is trying to maintain good hygiene by using the hand sanitizer, but people need to store it properly if they intend to leave it in their cars.
“You need to have it shielded,” Cook said. “You don’t want to end up with the sun and the prism effect. Then that is when it could very well become an ignition source. So, you can try and shield it and cover it.
“Also, you can put some aluminum foil over it.” Cook said that idea may sound crazy to some, but it will cause the sunlight to reflect away from the hand sanitizer bottle.
The temperature inside of the vehicle is not the primary reason the hand sanitizer becomes combustible, Cook said. It’s caused by the direct sunlight.
The material most car interiors have would increase the flammability. “The interior of your vehicle is pretty much all synthetic,” Cook said. “They are actually plastics, most of them, plastic which, in another form, burns.
“Remember, that is a petroleum product in a solid form. So really, if that happens in any car, it’s going to be off to the races.”
People should keep hand sanitizer and any other flammable products out of the direct sunlight, Cook said. People should be mindful not to leave it in the cupholders or on the dashboard of a car.
According to the Waukegan Fire Department’s Facebook Page, the sunlight prism effect caused the fire in Waukegan. The sunlight shining through the windshield onto the sanitizer was enough to cause ignition.
The fire was out before firefighters arrived, after the owner sprayed a small amount of water through a small hole in the windshield. Nothing inside the vehicle was wet, giving firefighters the impression that the fire went out due to lack of oxygen.
The Waukegan Fire Department said it is aware of other incidents similar to this as more and more people use a higher alcohol concentration hand sanitizer.
As the heat of summer is near, fire departments recommend that hand sanitizers not be kept in cars.