Propane Gas Explosion / Barbecue Gas Grill Injury

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Modified on 2009/10/15 03:47 by Nick Carroll
propane gas explosion / barbecue gas grill injury - image source: istockphoto

propane gas explosion / barbecue gas grill injury - image
source: istockphoto

Propane is a highly combustible hydrocarbon gas in the alkane family of gases, similar to ethane and butane.  Propane gas is compressed to a liquid form and placed into tanker trucks called ‘bobtails’ for transport to local usage tanks.  Propane is most frequently used as fuel for gas grills and in home heating systems.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly 7 million American homes use propane as their primary heating fuel, but approximately 14 million Americans have propane delivered to their homes for some fuel usage purpose.

Propane sold as home heating fuel is termed liquefied petroleum gas, and is composed of several other fuels in addition to propane.  Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is commonly made up of propane, small amounts of propylene and butane.  A foul, sulfurous odorant termed ethanethiol is added to odorless propane gas as a safety precaution in order to detect leaks easily in storage tanks.  Commercially available propane gas is sold in 20lb. cylinders as liquefied petroleum gas, and is primarily used for barbecue grills and heating recreational vehicles.

Barbecue grill fires and domestic propane tank explosions are a major source of personal injury in the United States each year.  According to recent statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of FEMA, some 6,500 barbecue grill fires injure Americans accounting for property loss of over $27 million annually.  Nearly a third of these gas grill fires occur in the backyard on a patio or terrace, and another third of these grill fires takes place in America’s backyards.  The overwhelming majority of these grill fires result from accidents related to malfunctioning propane gas grills.  Mechanical failure or malfunction is by far the leading cause of propane ignition.  BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions) are pressure-release explosions that occur when propane tanks are heated to combustion temperature, and are extremely dangerous. 

Historic Propane Accidents and BLEVEs

In many cases, leaks in industrial propane tanks have catastrophic consequences.  A 2007 Tacoma, Washington explosion at the Atlas Castings foundry (see video at right) critically injured an LPG delivery truck driver during a propane delivery.  The driver was carrying out a delivery to the foundry when his truck carrying 8,000 lb. of propane exploded, igniting an adjacent propane tank at the foundry and sending deadly tank shrapnel in all directions.  There were only four injuries in this BLEVE and surprisingly no casualties.

In December 2006, a large propane explosion at the Falk industrial facility resulted in 47 injuries and three deaths.  The Falk Corporation industrial complex, a major industrial employer near downtown Milwaukee, experienced a massive propane gas explosion and fire that completely leveled the facility, spreading detritus for miles around.  Several Falk employees recognized the sulfurous smell of leaking gas just before the explosion and were in the midst of an emergency plant evacuation at the time of the tank ruptured.  Had managers not called for an evacuation, many more company workers would have perished in the blaze.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, liquefied petroleum gas accidents were prevalent in railroad transport due to frequent train accidents and derailments.  The railroad industry knew little of the safe handling and potential dangers of propane, and numerous derailments of cars carrying propane resulted in several BLEVEs.  One devastating propane gas explosion occurred in Crescent City, Illinois in 1970, when ten railroad cars carrying liquefied propane gas derailed proximate to the city business district, igniting three BLEVEs that destroyed the downtown area and injured sixty-four people.  Railroad container cars are safer and more durable now because of these accidents.

For more information on Defective and Dangerous Products, please refer to our Defective Products Help Center or the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
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