Home & Garden

Exploding fuel gel raising concerns

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Kansas woman knew the dangers posed by gel fuels long before last month's warning from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Last October, Pam Polson of Lenexa, Kan., and her family sat on the patio catching up on each others' lives.

Polson's brother-in-law, Steve Michnick, began to refill a firepot with a liquidlike gel called NapaFire.

All Polson can remember are flames bursting out and landing on her.

"It was horrible," she said. "I mean I was flaming. One minute I was sitting doing nothing and the next thing I know these flames shot out and landed on me and I was immediately engulfed in flames."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning June 14 concerning gel and other illuminating fuels used in firepots, tiki torches and other products. Spokesman Alex Filip said the agency had received multiple reports that are still being investigated, but the focus of the investigation was on the fuel.

"Because it's a jellylike substance it will get onto clothing or skin, and when it catches fire just splashing water or smothering it won't always kill the flames," Filip said. "You need a dry chemical extinguisher to put it out."

Filip said to his knowledge the gel fuel has only been available on the market a couple of years. He said it is going to take some time for scientists to understand how to best deal with the product and to review the product's safety labels. Already, though retailers are pulling the product from the market. Filip said the most important thing is for the public to be aware that the products are hazardous.

"It looks like the flame has gone out when it actually hasn't," Filip said. "When people pour the fuel on when the fire is not completely out, it's like pouring fuel onto a fire."

A 14-year-old Long Island, N.Y., boy is fighting for his life after being covered with flames when a container with gel fuel exploded at a backyard wedding reception, according to The New York Times. A 24-year-old Manhattan man is on and off a ventilator after a similar incident nearly killed him. The two accidents occurred in late May and early June, less than a week apart.

Polson was luckier, but her injuries from the bursting flames were still frightening and painful.

"It's like they just shot out," Polson said. "It was so traumatizing I have a hard time even going over to my sister's house."

Polson said her legs caught fire first and the flames spread up her clothes until they reached her ear lobes and burned her hair. A family member poured water on her, but to no avail. Polson said she then remembered to stop, drop and roll, but her attempts caught the deck on fire. She doesn't remember the moments afterward.

The flames were eventually put out after her husband bear hugged her, caught fire himself and then someone covered the two with a blanket. The whole incident lasted two or three minutes, but the effects will linger much longer.

Polson received second- and third-degree burns on much of her body, including her legs, neck, arms and abdomen. Polson said she could have severe scarring for the rest of her life, and the emotional effects will be as bad.

"I'm scared to death of fire," Polson said. "I'm scared to light a match."

Napa Home and Garden Inc., a company that sold gel burners and gel fuel products, issued a precautionary hold on sales, urging retailers to remove the products from shelves. The company is reviewing the safety and labeling of gel burners and gel fuel.

Rachael Risinger, public relations manager with Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., one of Napa's retailers, said the chain has suspended selling the products.

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