A man reportedly burst into flames as police officers stunned him with a Taser just after he’d doused himself in hand sanitizer, and is now recovering in a burn ward. While this unlikely event is an exceptionally rare accident, it’s not the first time that an electroshock weapon and a flammable liquid have sparked a fire.
The incident occurred when Jason Jones, aged 29, got into a confrontation with officers at the Catskill police station in New York State, the Times Union of Albany reported. Details are thin, but Jones reportedly appeared intoxicated and poured hand sanitizer on himself. In an attempt to subdue him, an officer deployed a Taser, and Jones burst into flames.
Jones is reportedly in a "grave" condition in a burn unit in Syracuse. The police chief confirmed the incident occured, describing it as "horrible," and said it is under investigation by the Greene County district attorney's office.
A fire just needs three elements to burn: oxygen, fuel, and heat. In this recent scenario, the Taser spark provided the heat needed to complete the combustion, while the alcohol acted as a fuel and the air served as the oxidizing agent. By and large, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are perfectly safe and do not pose a fire risk unless they make contact with a direct spark.
There are a handful of documented instances where Tasers have ignited flammable materials, resulting in injuries and even fatalities. A 2017 study by US researchers identified six cases of fatal burns caused by electroshock weapons and four cases of major non-fatal burns out of 3 million uses. A number of moderate and minor burns from electric weapons were also noted. These namely occurred when someone was being arrested with a cigarette lighter in their pocket or they were close to a flammable liquid, such as petrol or recreational inhalants.
Back in 2010, Mythbusters tested out this theory, inspired by an episode of the crime drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in which a man burst into flames in police custody after being attacked with a stun gun and pepper spray. Not all of the pepper sprays caused combustion when combined with a stun gun, but a few did – causing the test dummy to light up like a match stick – because of flammable propellant or solvent found in the spray.