How to Protect Yourself Against Coronavirus When Pumping Gas

Pump handles and keypads can be contaminated, so take precautions to avoid exposure

pumping gas iStock-875117164

Despite social distancing and shuttered venues—moves designed to staunch the spread of the novel coronavirus—some essential workers still need to commute in their cars, and many others need to drive to places for food, medicine, and other supplies and services.

For many, that means 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.

Your best protection overall is to wash your hands properly on a regular basis and to refrain from touching your face with unwashed hands. But there are a few things you can do that will help you stay safe when you have to pump gas.

CR’s auto experts suggest several ways to approach this task.

• 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.

• Do the same to isolate yourself from the keypad when entering payment information.

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• 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.

• Cleaning your hands after you’re done seems like the quickest, easiest precaution. But some drivers might want to have disinfectant wipes handy for wiping down the gas pump handle and the payment keypad before pumping.

“This process ensures that I’m not inadvertently transferring the virus from a high-touch surface like a gas pump to my vehicle’s door handle, and from there into the interior,” says Gabriel Shenhar, associate director of CR’s auto test program.

Whichever method you prefer, our best advice is to be prepared ahead of time because washing your hands properly with soap and water at a gas station is not always an easy or feasible option.

John Eichberger, executive director of the nonprofit Fuels Institute, says gas station owners and operators are doing what they can to combat the spread of COVID-19 by cleaning their facilities more often. But that might not be enough assurance for some motorists.

“If consumers are really worried about touching a gas pump handle, they can do what they do when they go to a grocery store and wipe down surfaces with disinfectant wipes when they need to touch something,” Eichberger says.

Although it’s not entirely clear how long the coronavirus lives once attached to a surface like a door handle, Eike Steinmann, a virologist at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum in Germany who has studied the lifespan of viruses on various surfaces, says they probably won’t last more than a few days. Stephen Thomas, M.D., chief of infectious diseases and director of global health at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., says that bacteria and viruses exist everywhere in the natural environment, and that—again—your best defense is frequent, vigorous hand-washing.

Coronaviruses are surrounded by a protective envelope that helps them attach to and infect other cells. The friction from scrubbing is enough to break down the virus’s coating, Thomas says.

And as you would after any trip outside your home during this unusual time, remember to wash your hands before touching anything at home. The CDC recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and failing that, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Head shot of CR Autos Editor, Benjamin Preston

Benjamin Preston

My reporting has taken me everywhere from Baghdad, Iraq, to the Detroit auto show, along the U.S.-Mexico border and everywhere in between. If my travels have taught me anything, it's that stuff—consumer products—is at the center of daily life all over the world. That's why I'm so jazzed to be shining light on what works, what doesn't, and how people can enrich their lives by being smarter consumers. When I'm not reporting, I can usually be found at home with my family, at the beach surfing, or in my driveway, wrenching on my hot rod '74 Olds sedan.