We’ve all seen labels like this, stuck to gasoline pumps. While filling up my car’s gas tank earlier today, I felt compelled to take a picture of this familiar label — because I suddenly realized that what this small sign actually means is that the alcohol content of the gasoline being sold (in an area where liquor sales are illegal, no less) might be as much as twenty proof.
Twenty proof gasoline. Twenty proof gasoline! One never thinks of it this way, but it is both mathematically and chemically accurate. There are many different alcohols, but the one people drink for purposes of intoxication, and the one found in this gasoline, are the exact same molecule: C2H5OH. I then realized that the people who design these labels are being sneaky with the wording on purpose, for they don’t put “contains alcohol,” or anything like that, on these stickers found on gas pumps all over the place.
The reason for use of the official, less-familiar chemical term “ethanol” then became both obvious, and horrifying, all at once. Gas pumps must be labeled this way because there are people out there who are so incredibly stupid that they would actually drink gasoline if they knew it contained, well, booze.
What’s more, there is an unwritten assumption in play here, and I think (or at least hope) it is a valid one: anyone sufficiently educated to know that “ethanol” and the “the alcohol people drink to get drunk” are synonyms is also, presumably, smart enough to know better than to drink gasoline. Drinking gasoline would, of course, be dangerous in the extreme. Even inhaling gasoline fumes is hazardous, but drinking the stuff would be far worse. Consuming enough of this ethanol-containing gasoline to actually get drunk would, in fact, very likely be fatal, due to the mixture of toxic hydrocarbons present, in addition to the alcohol. The most toxic component of gasoline with which I am familiar is benzene, a potent carcinogen. Benzene is really nasty stuff, if it somehow makes it into a human body.
So, for the record, do not drink the up-to-twenty-proof gasoline — even though that is an accurate way to describe it.