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7 ON YOUR SIDE investigates exploding lithium batteries

Lithium ion batteries power our lives. But every once in a while, they blow up, spectacularly, spontaneously, and with terrible consequences.

In the past year we’ve seen an increase in exploding laptops, certain smartphones banned from airplanes, hoverboards burning beds, e-cigarettes tearing through pockets and skin.

The FDA reports more than 150 e-cigarette fires, and more than 80 consumers burned, even maimed; their teeth and facial bones shattered in some cases.

7 ON YOUR SIDE collected data on more than 100 lithium battery incidents reported to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) since 2011.

We found reports of major property damage, from $10,000 to $220,000 to $680,000.

Many cases show children at risk. In one case, a DVD player burned a five-year old child. A lighted picture frame caught a seven-year-old boy’s bedroom on fire. A phone set a teen’s pants on fire. A toy car lit a house on fire. A woman’s SUV was set ablaze by her two-year old son’s light-up shoes.

“Consumers should not be concerned these products are going to burn their houses down,” former chairman of the CPSC, Elliot Kaye, told 7 ON YOUR SIDE Consumer Investigator Kimberly Suiters.

7 ON YOUR SIDE talked one-on-one with Kaye on the day he directed CPSC staff to investigate all lithium battery products.

“Do lithium ion batteries need to come off market? Do they need to changed?” asked 7 ON YOUR SIDE's Suiters.

“It’s not possible to pull them off the market,” said Kaye. “But that data tells us we need to do more to get a handle on the dangers these batteries present.”

Almost every lithium ion-powered product recalled by the CPSC was manufactured in China. The CPSC started to exchange information with the Chinese after the massive hoverboard recall.

This spring, the CPSC will train manufacturers in battery safety protocols in China.

And while the CPSC can’t force companies to test all products, the scientists at Underwriters Laboratories test many.

UL’s consumer safety director John Drengenberg told 7 ON YOUR SIDE, they push products like lithium ion batteries beyond their limits: a crush test, a vibration test, a heat test. The point? To get the product to explode, and make sure it’s not so violent that it will cause an injury.

“Consumers want everything to be light and last a long time. We want a lot of power in our batteries,” said Drengenberg.

In January, Stanford University researchers announced one potential solution: they created a miniature fire extinguisher built directly into the batteries. It’s designed for electric cars, but may protect small devices in the future.

To minimize the chances that your battery will blow up:

1. LOOK FOR THE UL MARK & ONLY USE THE CHARGER THE MANUFACTURER PROVIDES

2. CHARGE OUT IN THE OPEN ON A HARD SURFACE, NEVER A CARPET, COUCH OR BED AND PREFERABLY NOT WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING

3. TAKE THAT HOVERBOARD OUT FROM UNDER YOUR BED

4. IF YOU'VE DROPPED YOUR BATTERY, GET A NEW ONE. SAME DEAL IF YOUR DEVICE IS HOT - OR NOT TAKING A CHARGE.

But can we say that lithium ion batteries are perfectly safe?

“You can trust lithium ion batteries,” said Drengenberg. “There are billions in use today.”

Only one in ten million will explode.

But when it’s your garage, your purse, your pocket, it’s too close for comfort.

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