April 9, 2010
Batteries are cartridges which convert stored chemical energy into electrical energy as a means of providing power for many household products, appliances, tools, gadgets, and toys. There are two common types of batteries, primary and secondary. Primary batteries convert chemical energy to electrical energy immediately following manufacture and until the initial supply of reactants diminishes, at which time the battery is disposed of and replaced. Secondary batteries, or “rechargeable batteries”, can be connected to a source of electrical power and the original composition can be restored multiple times after depletion until internal corrosion, dissipation of active materials, and loss of electrolytes occur through aging and use. Secondary batteries must be initially charged before they are usable for the first time.
The Freedonia Group estimates that the U.S. consumes $14 billion of batteries produced each year, including both primary and secondary types. By 2012, it is estimated that the U.S. will use approximately $17.5 billion in batteries each year.
Rechargeable Battery Defects
Hazards associated with rechargeable battery use most often relate to chemical or mechanical issues. The mechanical problems are generally caused by chemical instability which results in overheating, explosions or rupture of the batteries. The latest versions of batteries – high energy-density lithiums – are more hazardous than conventional ones due to volatility and delicacy when compared with more stable and durable non-rechargeable varieties.
Hazards commonly presented by rechargeable battery usage are:
- Explosion – causes personal injury and structural damage
- Leakage of dangerous chemicals
- Toxic metal pollution
In 1991, the National Electric Injury Surveillance System reported 12,560 battery-related injuries in the U.S. About 70 percent of the injuries listed affected body parts exposed during handling of the defective battery. The most affected body parts were :
- Eyes – 40.9 percent
- Internal – 19.2 percent
- Head, face, mouth – 15.7 percent
- Hands, fingers – 7.5 percent
- Legs, ankles, feet, toes – 6.1 percent
- Body – 5.2 percent
- Ears – 3.4 percent
- Arms, shoulders – 2 percent
The types of injuries were :
- Chemical burns – 35.8 percent
- Ingestion – 19.2 percent
- Contusion/abrasion – 12.0 percent
- Skin injuries – 10.3 percent
- Foreign body – 8.5 percent
- Laceration – 5.2 percent
- Poisoning – 2.1 percent
- Other – 6.9 percent
Some examples of rechargeable batteries recalled in cooperation with the Consumer Product Safety Commission due to reported incidences or documented injuries are:
- Battery-Biz of California recalled about 10,000 high capacity laptop computer batteries in 2005 due to an internal short causing the battery to overheat, posing fire and burn risk. Six batteries reportedly overheated and melted causing property damage.
- Lenmar Enterprises of California recalled 1,400 cell phone rechargeable batteries in January 2010 due to overheating and burn risk. Six batteries were reported to have overheated causing property damage, particularly to the cell phones themselves.
- Hewlett Packard of Palo Alto, Calif., recalled 70,000 laptop batteries in 2009 due to reports of overheating, rupturing, and potential for fire. Two batteries reportedly overheated and ruptured, causing property damage but no injury.
- NEC Technologies recalled 13,000 laptop batteries in 1994 due to risk of explosion and fire. Seven incidences of smoke and/or fire occurred without injury.
- In 2001, Dell Computer Corp. recalled 284,000 laptop batteries for fire and burn risk after one overheated during recharging.
- One burn injury to a cell phone user resulted when a Kyocera battery short-circuited and erupted with force due to excessive heat. One-hundred forty thousand Kyocera batteries were subsequently recalled in 2004.
- An Elpower battery in a child’s riding toy exploded when the child’s father attempted to recharge the battery according to a Schumacher charging unit’s listed specifications. The plastic covering from the battery injured the father’s eye and resulted in an award of $250,000 in punitive damages.