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Editor’s note: This article was updated in August 2021 to include a new but similar iteration of the 2020 social media claims in response to the Delta variant, as well as new guidance issued by the CDC.
In March 2020, during the COVID-19 coronavirus disease pandemic, social media users began sharing warnings about the virus allegedly “spreading quickly from gas pumps.” Such warnings cautioned readers to use gloves or paper towels while pumping gas and to discard them immediately afterward:
One particular version of this class of warning attributed the advice to “Galway Hospital” in Ireland:
In early August 2021, Snopes readers sent our team a new iteration of the claim with slightly different language that seemed to have been updated in response to the then-rampant Delta variant:
Fwd: The hospital sent a message this morning that the Covid-19/delta mutant virus seems to be spreading rapidly through gasoline pumps, asking everyone to wear gloves or use paper towels when refueling and handling-please share. Please send it to everyone in your contact list. Don’t leave this information to yourself. Make it available to all your family and friends
As with many coronavirus-related pieces of advice, it’s something of a mixed bag.
We’re not aware of any credible reports of COVID-19 being spread via gas pump handles (something that would likely be difficult to determine as the specific source of any particular infection). It is true that surface contact is one of the means of transmission of the novel coronavirus, and since gas pumps are objects that are typically handled by many different people throughout the course of a day — in many places without being regularly cleaned between uses (especially in areas where self-service is the norm) — they are a potential route for the virus to spread from person to person.
The CDC issued new guidance for employees at transit stations in June 2021 in response to growing concerns about SARS-CoV-2 variants.
The virus mainly spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets that are emitted when a person coughs, sneezes or talks. The virus can also be spread by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching the face, mouth, nose, or eyes.
In May 2020, the CDC shared an instructional Facebook post to inform consumers on to safely pump gas. In the post, the agency recommended using disinfecting wipes on handles and buttons before touching them, using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol after pumping and paying, and washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water upon arriving at the destination.
“Like door handles, grocery carts, and ATMs, many people touch gas pumps throughout the day. The chance of COVID-19 exposure at the gas pump is low, especially if Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended practices are followed,” wrote the American Petroleum Institute (API) in a one-page statement.
Research conducted by a collaboration of scientific institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and Princeton University, found that the virus can survive up to three days on some surfaces. But as API pointed out, several events would need to happen for the virus to spread from a pump to a person.
First, a person with COVID-19, with or without symptoms, would have to emit respiratory droplets containing the virus within 6-feet of a pump or touch it with contaminated hands. The virus would then need to survive long enough for a non-COVID-19 individual to touch the surface in a way that the virus would be transferred to their hands. Lastly, the healthy individual would then have to touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
While it is entirely possible to encounter SARS-CoV-2 by touching a gas pump, surface-to-surface transmission is not thought to be the primary spread of the virus.
“At this time, we are not aware of any studies that support the claim that the virus can be transmitted via contact with a gas pump,” wrote API. However, the level of risk associated with contracting the virus from a gas pump is no different than the risk associated with touching other common surfaces like grocery store carts or door handles.”
But how much risk pumping gas poses relative to other ordinary day-to-day activities is difficult to determine. Consumer Reports, for example, offered advice in 2020 that was consistent with what was expressed in some social media warnings:
For many [persons] the occasional trip to the gas station is inevitable, as is touching the pump handle and payment keypad. Pump handles and credit card keypads, which are high-touch areas, could have the virus present, which experts say can stay alive for hours or even days on hard surfaces …
[T]here are a few things you can do that will help you stay safe when you have to pump gas.
• Consider carrying some disposable nitrile or latex gloves in your car to use when gripping the pump handle. Short of that, you can try to use paper towels that are sometimes available at the pump or have some with you to cover your hands when you grip the handle.
• Invert the gloves and throw them away, and also any paper towels you might have used. Use hand sanitizer to make sure your hands are clean after you’re done and before you get back into your car.
On the other hand, in response o the 2020 social media posts, the Irish Petroleum Industry Association told the TheJournal.ie the following:
Our members are implementing enhanced hygiene protocols in our service station shops. In line with HSE [Health and Safety Executive] advice, our workers regularly wash and sanitise their hands and the areas customers interact with such as fuel nozzles, credit card PIN pads, door handles and food areas.
We are aware of messages being shared on social media and wanted to inform customers that pump handles are no more or less prone to the spread of infection than any other hard surface and to outline the significant steps we are taking to combat the spread of Covid-19 and keep our valued customers safe.
Gas pumps could be considered somewhat more of a concern because consumers typically touch other surfaces — such as the door handles and interiors of their vehicles — immediately afterward and could thereby create yet another pathway of contamination for themselves or others. However, gas pumps are just one of many objects that multiple people commonly handle in a similar fashion during the course of a day, including ATMs, payment processing systems, shopping cart handles, and currency, all of which pose varying degrees of risk.