MEDFORD, Mass. — On a recent June weekday, 30-year-old Catherine Carver got a call she never expected: her apartment building in Medford was on fire.
The cause: a lithium-ion battery for a housemate’s electronic bike that combusted while charging.
The June 3rd fire was the second linked to lithium-ion batteries in Medford alone in a short time span: the June 3 and April 30 fires together displaced almost a dozen people and sent three to the hospital.
Carver said no one was seriously hurt in the June fire, though a housemate who tried to put out the fire suffered some smoke inhalation.
Carver said she lost quite a bit: the hobby seamstress lost half of her wardrobe of historical costumes, and she could only save five out of 15 antique dolls she collected.
“These are things I can’t just go out and replace,” Carver said.
Carver said the housemate who owned the battery was very safety conscious and lost everything: “I never assumed something like this would have happened.”
LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES EVERYWHERE
Lightweight and powerful lithium-ion batteries now power everything from e-bikes to scooters to hoverboards, to phones and laptops and vehicles.
But the batteries are increasingly coming under scrutiny as they become ubiquitous: they can cause fires if overcharged, overheated, defective or damaged. Experts urge people to avoid aftermarket or generic batteries and chargers, to store e-scooters outside and to steer clear of items that aren’t listed by a national recognized testing laboratory.
“With lithium-ion batteries, they pack a powerful punch,” Medford Fire Chief John Freedman said. “There’s a lot of energy stored in these batteries.”
The batteries burn at about a thousand degrees – meaning they can easily ignite other household items with lower ignition temperatures.
Fires sparked by lithium-ion batteries can happen rapidly, burn hot and quickly spread around a room, Freedman said – meaning it’s crucial for people to call 911 quickly and vacate the building once a fire starts.
“A homeowner is not equipped to be able to extinguish a lithium-ion battery fire,” he said.
According to available data, lithium-ion batteries are causing a tiny fraction of the thousands of fires that Massachusetts sees each year. The state sees about 15,000 structure fires and over 2,000 vehicle fires annually.
“So, if you look at the number of lithium-ion batteries that are out there, the incidence of fires is very low,” Freedman said.
TRACKING DOWN THE NUMBERS
But when 25 Investigates wanted specific numbers, Jake Wark, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services said the state doesn’t have a breakdown for lithium-ion battery fires.
So, 25 Investigates reached out to nearly 200 fire departments across Massachusetts.
We found that lithium-ion batteries have sparked 8 fires in the state so far from January through early June: including in Medford, Brockton, Chicopee, New Bedford, Wakefield, and Somerville.
That means Massachusetts is on track to potentially see an uptick in fires sparked by lithium-ion batteries this year: the state reported 13 battery fires of any kind in 2022 overall.
The culprits in those fires:
-Batteries used for an e-bike stored outdoors.
-An electric vehicle.
-Lithium-ion battery-powered scooters left in a first-floor laundry room.
-A laptop battery that overheated and then was smoking.
And the state fire marshal’s office is investigating whether lithium-ion batteries fueled a ninth fire in February in Stoneham.
Stoneham Fire Chief Matt Grafton said it is possible that RC car batteries reignited a fire at a single-family home.
State Fire Marshall spokesperson Jake Wark said the state has seen numerous fires sparked by any kind of battery from 2018 to 2022.
The number varied from 9 reported in 2018, to 5 in 2019, to 13 in both 2021 and 2022.
Those battery fires have led to civilian and firefighter injuries:
Battery fires left four civilians with injuries in 2018.
In 2021, the state reported seven injuries involving firefighters and one involving a civilian.
And fire officials are issuing urgent warnings about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries, which can spark hard-to-fight fires.
“When I see two in a very short span, I think to myself, okay, are they following the manufacturer specs, are they charging them properly?” Freedman said.
Freedman said the increasing popularity of lithium-ion batteries could be fueling any uptick.
“I think we’re seeing an uptick because of the increased usage of electric vehicles, e-bikes, scooters, that type of stuff,” Freedman said. “We’re seeing more and more people utilizing these vehicles and it’s going to increase the likelihood that we will see more.”
For 30-year-old Carver, she said she’s found a place to stay starting July 1.
“It’s just the feeling of being adrift, you know, and of having that sense of security and certainty,” she said, “Even if we didn’t intend to stay in this house forever, kind of yanked out from under you. It’s not a move you chose to make. It’s not an ending you chose to have happen.”
She said she encourages people with lithium-ion batteries to be aware of the risk.
“The warning labels mostly just say don’t leave it plugged in after it’s done charging,” she said. “You know, that’s not just because it’s going to drain the battery life, as we’re all accustomed to and might reasonably assume.”
“It can explode,” Carver said. “It’s a very real risk.”
She said she hopes that manufacturers work harder on improving the safety of lithium-ion batteries and raising more awareness about the dangers.
“And a lot of people wish that the manufacturers would be more upfront about this and perhaps make a product that doesn’t do this,” Carver said.
LEGISLATION IN OTHER STATES
In New York City, city officials told The Associated Press last November that the fire department counted nearly 200 blazes and 6 fire deaths in the past year linked to lithium-ion batteries in devices like electronic bikes and scooters.
New Jersey and New York are both considering bills to ban sales of lithium-ion batteries for E-bikes.
Maryland has a bill to set lithium-ion training and emergency response standards for firefighters.
New York has another bill to study lithium-ion battery safety issues, including the effectiveness of lithium fireproof blankets and a review of the severity of lithium-ion battery fires.
Lithium-ion batteries are also on the agenda of lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
Lawmakers in Congress are also weighing a bill to create a safety standard for lithium-ion batteries in E-bikes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission will be holding a meeting on lithium-ion battery safety July 27.
RESPONSE FROM MA LEADERS
It’s unclear whether Massachusetts lawmakers will consider any restrictions on lithium-ion batteries.
State Rep. Paul Donato, whose district includes Medford, said he was concerned about the spate of lithium-ion battery fires in Medford and was looking into the issue.
Gov. Maura Healey’s spokesperson told 25 Investigates she was unavailable for an interview.
The attorney general’s office declined a request for an interview.
The state fire marshal’s office will be offering an updated electric vehicle fire class – which deals with the larger lithium-ion batteries – this fall through its academy, according to Wark.
And local fire departments are making sure their firefighters are trained on the dangers of lithium-ion batteries.
West Bridgewater’s fire department, for example, is holding a lithium-ion battery training on July 14.
“What makes them unique is that they have all of the ingredients internally to support their own combustion,” Freedman said. Obviously, lithium itself. There’s an electrolyte in there and there is oxygen on the cathode. So, when the failure happens, it has all the ingredients internal to the device to support the fire. And when they fail, they fail at a high rate. So basically, in a couple of seconds, we have complete disassembly of the device, and it spreads. These batteries end up going all around the room and they can ignite surrounding combustibles.”
“Think of it like a bunch of batteries all packed into one container,” Freedman said. “You have one battery that overloads or that fails or has some sort of catastrophic thing where the temperature increases.”
Owners of e-bikes who want to charge the devices after a ride should wait for batteries to cool down before charging them, Freedman said.
It’s crucial to stick around and wait for the battery to fully charge – and then unplug it immediately. Freedman also warned against letting the battery drain to zero.
Freedman warned against trying to put out lithium-ion battery fires.
“Even if you cool it down when it’s burning, the potential energy is still in the battery,” Freedman said. “So, if you shut the water off, it can reignite. So that’s the uniqueness of lithium. You have to continue to cool it even after it’s extinguished.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The state fire marshal’s office has some tips for the safe usage of lithium-ion batteries:
Be sure you have working smoke alarms installed on every level of your home.
-Only purchase items that are listed by a nationally recognized testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Intertek (ETL).
-Use only the original equipment manufacturer’s batteries and charging equipment. Aftermarket or generic batteries and chargers may be cheaper but are more likely to pose a burn, fire, or explosion hazard.
-Store scooters and e-bikes outdoors if possible. If you must store them indoors, keep them and their batteries clear of doors, windows, and stairways.
-Charge the battery directly from a wall outlet, not an extension cord or power strip. Place it on a hard and stable surface, not a bed, couch, or pillow.
-Charge only one battery or device at a time and unplug it when it’s fully charged. Don’t allow a charged battery to continue charging.
-If you notice changes to the battery or the device, including damage, an unusual odor, a change in color, too much heat, a change in shape, leaking, smoking, or not keeping a charge, stop using it right away.
-When it’s time to dispose of the battery, don’t put it in the trash. Lithium-ion batteries should be recycled, and you can find a location to take them at https://www.call2recycle.org/locator/.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.
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