Columbia, SC (WLTX) - A number of red plastic consumer gas cans are made without a small device in the container's spout that could make them more safe.
The device is a small piece of mesh screen called a flame arrestor and would only cost manufacturers about a nickel to include in gas can designs.
"It's something you do everyday, fueling up a lawnmower, fueling up a chainsaw," said Chad Funchess, who for almost four decades used a gas can without a flame arrestor on his parents' Orangeburg farm.
Funchess also owned a gas station down the street, and used a consumer gas can there to fuel up lawn equipment.
"A pecan limb behind my convenience store had fallen and part of it was on the building," he said. "I was cutting up the limb with my chainsaw."
The chainsaw he was using ran out of gas. While he was refueling, the red gas can unexpectedly exploded.
"People need to know that red gas can in their garage or out in the storage house, it could be a bomb," said Billy Walker, an attorney whose litigates gas can explosion cases for the past seven years.
During that time, he's used video experiments prepared by an expert witness to show the possible dangers of the common red gas can.
"When people get burned by this, it is horrific," Walker said.
So horrific that the Consumer Product Safety Commission is involved. A spokesman says they would like to see a standards commission incorporate flame arrestor technology in consumer gas cans.
Already, gas cans have general safety warnings printed on them telling users to keep away from flames and electric motors.
Since 2009 though, the CPSC has been investigating if the standard for those red gas cans "needs additional requirements to add flame arrestors" according to a published CPSC memo.
While some manufacturers do include flame arrestors, the gas can Funchess was using didn't have one.
"It prevents a flame or heat source from getting into the can," Walker said. "This wire mesh will dissipate the heat and keep the flame itself from entering the can."
Walker has filed a federal lawsuit against Blitz USA, the manufacturer of Chad's can that blew up. It claims the "lack of a flame arrestor" made the can dangerous to users.
"The can is designed so poorly that when you pour it and pull it back up, it sucks that heat source into the can and causes the can to explode," Walker said.
Blitz USA filed a response in federal court denying all claims their product, which lacked a flame arrestor, was unsafe.
Still, the Materials Information Society published in 2010 "that an inexpensive screen flame arrestor can prevent these types of events from occurring."
"I believe it's been proven that the arrestors are doing their job. I guess that's my point," said Major Darwin Fulwood with the Cayce Department of Public Safety. "On the research I've seen, nobody is saying they don't work. So, if they're inexpensive and they work, why not use them?"
Fulwood has been called to scenes where a gas can caught fire while someone was filling up lawn equipment, although he says he's never seen the can explode.
"Nothing was really ever determined on what ignited the spark," Funchess said. "Something off the heat of the muffler or some kind of exhaust. We don't really know."
Funchess says he remembers everything about that day and says there was no flame around when he was cutting the pecan tree outside his gas station.
"I was burned on 46 percent of my upper body and the rest of my body was used as skin grafts to graft over the burnt skin. So, pretty much 98 percent of my whole body was affected by this burn," Funchess said.
After the accident, Funchess spent four months in a coma and lost his left arm in the accident. Doctors were able to save his right hand, and while it doesn't have any movement, metal pins have curved his fingers so he's still able to do certain things.
"It could happen to anyone and people should be aware of the risk that's involved," Funchess said. "The container that is supposedly safe if not. It's very unsafe."
If you'd like to purchase a gas can with a flame arrestor, you can find them in the Midlands at these stores:
Lowe's Home Improvement 7441 Two Notch Rd., Columbia
Hilton's Power Equipment 5933 Two Notch Rd., Columbia
Kings Outdoor Power Equipment 28825 HWY 76, Clinton
Moores Repair Service 3486 Chester HWY, McConnells