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TODAY   |  December 04, 2013

Tests reveal potential hazards of gas cans

Millions of Americans use plastic gas cans to fill lawnmowers, generators and snowblowers. The U.S. government reports nearly a dozen deaths and 1,200 injuries due to gas can explosions over the past 15 years. NBC’s Lisa Myers investigates the potential hazard.

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>>> family needs to see. it's about the red plastic gas cans a lot of us have in our homes or garages. 11 people reportedly died and 1200 treated at emergency rooms because of explosions. nbc 's senior investigative correspondence lisa myers has more on this. good morning.

>> reporter: hey, matt. good morning. this is a potential hazard that even folks used to handling dangerous materials may not know about. there's about 100 million of these cans out there. lab tests show that under some limited conditions they can explode and some incidents involving alleged explosions have had horrific consequences. we wanted you to be able to see what can happen. so nbc news conducted it's own testing. bill melvin has worked around car racing his whole life.

>> every day i work with highly flammable substances.

>> reporter: four years ago he ran out of gas while mowing his yard and got a gas can and began to refill his lawn mower . the gas can exploded and blew me into the shop.

>> the gas can exploded?

>> correct.

>> reporter: he was engulfed in flames and severely burned over a third of his body.

>> it was a miracle i was alive.

>> reporter: he filed about 80 lawsuits. diane represented about 30 victims.

>> through all of these cases, what did you come to believe about these cans?

>> they're bombs. they are. pure and simple.

>> reporter: government data found reports that 11 have died and 1200 have gone to emergency rooms since 1998 because of gas can explosions. for years the industry denied these explosions could happen but then in 2010 an industry group tested gas cans. nbc news obtained the video. the cans do explode under certain limited conditions. we wanted to show you how the cans can fail. so we came to the same lab used by the industry group and asked the scientists here to perform the same tests for us. they did both sets of tests. nbc news provided five gallon gas cans. a few teaspoons of gasoline in the can and tilted it an an angle.

>> so you're replicating what a consumer would do when they pour gasoline out?

>> correct.

>> reporter: the question, will gas vapors coming out of the can ignite and travel back to cause an explosion inside the can when the flame is place below the spout. all five cans tested exploded. so what does this tell us?

>> there is an issue with the gas can. it needs to be addressed.

>> when is it most likely to happen? when it's cool. there's only a little fuel left and the can is tilted to get out the last drops.

>> there are billions of uses every year of the portable gas can with no adverse result.

>> reporter: a lawyer for the gas can industry says the testing doesn't prove the cans are unsafe.

>> this is really only occurring that i've ever seen in a laboratory environment.

>> you're claiming that in all of these cases the gas can did not explode?

>> what i'm saying is we haven't seen a case where that has been demonstrated.

>> reporter: he also argues that many incidents involve consumers misusing the can. like pouring gasoline on a fire or into a warm engine as melvin did. some scientists argue that adding a screen or match called the flame arrester can make cans safer by keeping the flame from entering the can as this demonstration shows. some metal safety cans have them and so does this charcoal lighter fluid and bottles of lumbar.

>> why does the industry not put flame arresters on the portable gas cans?

>> well, the industry is studying the issue intently.

>> reporter: the industry has been studying the issue for six years and says it will make the change when it's sure it will make the cans safer. meanwhile, many of those burned had their lives changed before. bill has plenty of scars you don't see. he no longer views what happened to him as an accident.

>> it was going to happen to somebody and the thing about it is they know it. it will happen. they know it. i was just one of the numbers.

>> reporter: now through all of this the industry still maintains that these cans are safe. but after inquiries from us, the consumer product safety commission reviewed all it's safety and technical data and the commission now, for the first time, is calling on the industry to add flame arrester technology to these cans. and matt, one other thing we should remind everyone about is that mixing gasoline and fire is dangerous. you should never pour gasoline on a fire or use it to start a fire.

>>> yeah. that goes without saying but i'm glad you said it anyway, lisa. thank you very much.