Health and safety considerations

The primary safety hazard of LPG and gasoline is fire. The high volatility and high flammability of the lower-boiling-point products allows vapours to evaporate readily into air and form flammable mixtures which can be easily ignited. This is a recognized hazard that requires specific storage, containment and handling precautions, and safety measures to assure that releases of vapours and sources of ignition are controlled so that fires do not occur. The less volatile fuels, such as kerosene and diesel fuel, should be handled carefully to prevent spills and possible ignition, as their vapours are also combustible when mixed with air in the flammable range. When working in atmospheres containing fuel vapours, concentrations of highly volatile, flammable product vapours in air are often restricted to no more than 10% of the lower flammable limits (LFL), and concentrations of less volatile, combustible product vapours to no more than 20% LFL, depending on applicable company and government regulations, in order to reduce the risk of ignition.

Although gasoline vapour levels in air mixtures are typically maintained below 10% of the LFL for safety purposes, this concentration is considerably above the exposure limits to be observed for health reasons. When inhaled, small amounts of gasoline vapour in air, well below the lower flammable limit, can cause irritation, headaches and dizziness, while inhalation of larger concentrations can cause loss of consciousness and eventually death. Long-term health effects may also be possible. Gasoline contains benzene, for example, a known carcinogen with allowable exposure limits of only a few parts per million. Therefore, even working in gasoline vapour atmospheres at levels below 10% LFL requires appropriate industrial hygiene precautions, such as respiratory protection or local exhaust ventilation.

In the past, many gasolines contained tetra-ethyl or tetra methyl alky lead anti-knock additives, which are toxic and present serious lead absorption hazards by skin contact or inhalation. Tanks or vessels which contained leaded gasoline at any time during their use must be vented, thoroughly cleaned, tested with a special “lead-in-air” test device and certified to be lead-free to assure that workers can enter without using self-contained or supplied breathing air equipment, even though oxygen levels are normal and the tanks now contain unleaded gasoline or other products.

Gaseous petroleum fractions and the more highly volatile fuel products have a mild anaesthetic effect, generally in inverse ratio to molecular weight. Lower-boiling-point liquid fuels, such as gasoline and kerosene, produce a severe chemical pneumonitis if inhaled, and should not be siphoned by mouth or accidentally ingested. Gases and vapours may also be present in sufficiently high concentrations to displace oxygen (in the air) below normal breathing levels. Maintaining vapour concentrations below the exposure limits and oxygen levels at normal breathing ranges, is usually accomplished by purging or ventilation.

Cracked distillates contain small amounts of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); therefore, exposure should be limited. Dermatitis may also develop from exposure to gasoline, kerosene and distillate fuels, as they have a tendency to defat the skin. Prevention is accomplished by use of personal protective equipment, barrier creams or reduced contact and good hygienic practices, such as washing with warm water and soap instead of cleaning hands with gasoline, kerosene or solvents. Some persons have skin sensitivity to the dyes used to colour gasoline and other distillate products.

Residual fuel oils contain traces of metals and may have entrained hydrogen sulphide, which is extremely toxic. Residual fuels which have high cracked stocks boiling above 370 °C contain carcinogenic PAHs. Repeated exposure to residual fuels without appropriate personal protection, should be avoided, especially when opening tanks and vessels, as hydrogen sulphide gas may be emitted.