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Smoke and fire: How safe are the batteries in your electronics?

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  • Cell phones, laptops, hoverboards, and e-cigarettes are exploding or catching on fire.
  • The one thing these products have in common: rechargeable lithium ion batteries. They cram a lot of energy into a very small space.
  • Billions of the batteries are being used. Most don’t have problems. Experts say they’re safe.
  • ABC 33/40 News Investigates has been digging into the issue. We have some important information to keep you even safer.

iPhone 6 Plus caught fire

Ken Speaks is the CEO of RMCI. That’s a Huntsville, Alabama company that’s developed an advanced mechanical diagnostic system for helicopters to help them fly safely.

He depends on his cell phone to do business. But his iPhone 6 Plus caught fire while he was sleeping. He charged it on his mattress while it was in airplane mode.

“It was right by my head,” Speaks told ABC 33/40 News. “So, I heard something, rolled over and glanced and saw the flames. Really the melted plastic spewing out like volcano lava.”

According to the Apple website, lithium ion batteries are in all Apple products.

In fact, lithium batteries are used by many different electronics manufacturers. They’ve been linked to safety issues that have been going on for years.

E-cigarettes and hoverboards on fire

Two years ago, Evan Spahlinger was badly burned by an exploding an e-cigarette in Florida.

“I was sort of gasping for air,” Spahlinger said. “Everything I was spitting out was black, like I was spitting up blood.”

Last March, two children and a firefighter were killed in Pennsylvania after a hoverboard ignited while it was charging.

152 incidents on airplanes and in airports since 1991

The Federal Aviation Administration identified 152 incidents since 1991 involving smoke, fire, extreme heat, or explosions on airplanes or in airports.

Those incidents involved lithium batteries in cell phones, headphones, e-cigarettes, laptops, or chargers.

Forty of those cases occurred since 2016.

How safe are lithium batteries?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled more than 4.2 million products containing lithium-ion batteries since 2012.

And while the federal government is ordering recalls, and working with industry experts and manufacturers on safety issues, the general consensus is lithium batteries are safe.

“In the bigger scheme of things, it’s really just a small fraction of these batteries, when you think of the billions that are in use, that actually have a problem,” CPSC spokesperson Karla Crosswhite told ABC 33/40 News.

John Drengenberg is the consumer safety director for UL. That the company that sets safety standards for billions of products.

“It could be a manufacturing error,” Drengenberg told ABC 33/40 News. “It could be material problems in the battery cell.But it could also be the user who might have misused, or not even realized they misused, the product.”

Warning: Too hot to touch

UL says if your electronic device is too hot to touch, that’s a big warning sign. Disconnect it. Let it cool down far away from anything flammable and contact the manufacturer. If it doesn’t cool down, stay away and call 911.

Another warning sign: If your device has a hard time keeping a charge, there might be something wrong with the battery. Call the manufacturer and get it checked out.

Safety tips

UL has some ways to stay safe by protecting the battery inside your electronic device:

  • Be careful not to bend or drop your device. That could create a short circuit.
  • Keep it dry
  • Avoid excessive heat. So don’t leave it in your car, out in the sun, or near your stove
  • Use only the manufacturer’s charger. They’re safer.
  • Charge your device on a hard surface away from anything flammable. Your device needs lots of ventilation.

Speaks says he was treated by a doctor after breathing in all those fumes. The fire also damaged his mattress, bedding and pillow. He says he’s learned some important lessons.

“Don’t put the phone in the bed with you,” Speaks said. “Don’t charge the phone unless it’s attended.”

Apple’s response

We reached out to Apple. Here’s what they said:

“We take customer safety very seriously,” an Apple spokesperson told ABC 33/40 News. “We are in touch with the customer and looking into the matter.”

I tried to get Apple to expand on that statement, especially since iPhones have been linked to other fires. But the spokesman would not go beyond those few words.

What to do if you damage your device

Meantime, if you do damage any electronic device, contact the manufacturer and get it fixed. Because if you continue to use it, you could start a fire.

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