Exploding cell phone batteries prompt recalls
November 23, 2004
WASHINGTON – Curtis Sathre said it was like a bomb going off. His 13-year-old son Michael stood stunned, his ears ringing, hand gushing blood and body covered in black ash.
In a split second last August, fragments from Michael’s exploding cell phone had hit him between the eyes and lodged in the ceiling of the family’s home in Oceanside, Calif.
Over the past two years, federal safety officials have received 83 reports of cell phones exploding or catching fire, usually because of incompatible, faulty or counterfeit batteries or chargers. Burns to the face, neck, leg and hip are among the dozens of injury reports the agency has received.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission is providing tips for cell phone users to avoid such accidents and has stepped up oversight of the wireless industry. There have been three voluntary battery recalls, and the CPSC is working with companies to create better battery standards.
“CPSC is receiving more and more reports of incidents involving cell phones, and we’re very concerned of the potential for more serious injuries or more fires,” said agency spokesman Scott Wolfson.
U.S. phone makers and carriers say most fires and explosions are caused by counterfeit batteries and note the number of accidents is extremely low.
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“Is it a problem? It has turned up, you bet. But statistically it is extraordinarily rare,” said John Walls, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. “But the fact that it has happened certainly has the industry’s attention.”
Some consumer advocates say the cause goes beyond bad batteries making their way to the market. They point to the increasing pressure on battery and phone makers to fit more capabilities into small instruments.
“If you’re cramming more and more power in a small space, what you’re making is a small bomb,” said Carl Hilliard, president of the California-based Wireless Consumers Alliance, which has been tracking incidents of cell phone fires and explosions.
Though legitimate batteries can go wrong, there is a greater chance that poorly made, counterfeit ones will lack safety devices to detect overheating or overcharging. The lithium-ion batteries found in most cell phones can overheat if vents are covered.
The CPSC is trying to determine if improved venting is enough by itself to ensure safety. “We have seen temperatures as high as 600 degrees, and you can have a torch-like effect if these batteries don’t function properly,” Wolfson said.
The commission has announced three battery recalls since January, one from Verizon Wireless and two from Kyocera Wireless Corp. Kyocera’s first recall was blamed on a supplier whose standards had slipped.