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Fuel siphoning: watch out for the risk of poisoning

During the recent fuel shortage, the number of cases of poisoning caused by siphoning increased five-fold. To avoid accidents, ANSES and the French poison control centres strongly discourage this practice.

A practice on the rise during the fuel shortage

In October 2022, the number of cases of poisoning from the siphoning of petroleum fuels recorded by the French poison control centres was over five times higher than that usually reported. Siphoning consists in emptying a vehicle's fuel tank by using one's mouth to suck fuel through a hose. The contents of the tank can thus be transferred to a different container such as a jerry can and then used to fill up the tank of another vehicle, for example. The act of sucking on the hose can cause a small amount of fuel to be swallowed, which is enough to cause poisoning, regardless of the type of fuel (petrol, diesel, etc.).

These cases of poisoning primarily occurred between 9 and 18 October 2022, when up to a third of France's filling stations ran out of fuel. Fuel had been siphoned from the tanks of road vehicles, or even agricultural machinery or gardening equipment such as lawn mowers.

Poisoning that can potentially lead to pneumonia

If petroleum fuels are swallowed, their characteristics (highly fluid, irritating, and volatile) promote choking, which can have serious consequences for the bronchi. The onset of fever or prolonged coughing a few hours after ingestion is the first sign of potential aspiration pneumonia. Some patients presented with respiratory disorders requiring a trip to the emergency department or even hospitalisation

The poisoned individuals also showed digestive symptoms such as gastric reflux, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, as well as neurological signs such as headaches, sleepiness, and dizziness.

What should you do if you have swallowed fuel?

ANSES and the French poison control centres strongly discourage you from using your mouth to siphon fuel. If you have swallowed fuel:

  • Do not make yourself vomit, to prevent the fuel from passing into your bronchi and then your lungs;
  • Do not drink anything, to avoid the risk of vomiting;
  • Rinse your mouth with water;
  • Do not engage in any high-risk activity, such as driving a car or using machinery or tools, because your vigilance may be impaired;
  • Watch out for respiratory symptoms (cough, fever, shortness of breath), which may be delayed;
  • If any fuel comes into contact with your skin, wash your hands with soap and rinse your skin.

In the event of a life-threatening emergency (respiratory distress, loss of consciousness, etc.): dial 15 (in France), 112 or 114 (for the deaf and hard of hearing).

Otherwise, for any medical advice after swallowing fuel: call a poison control centre or see a doctor.