Tech

Lithium-ion battery sparks another deadly fire. How to avoid the risks

Lithium-ion batteries are increasingly causing accidental fires, including an apartment fire that claimed a life in New York City.

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A lithium-ion battery sparked a devastating fire at a New York apartment building, killing one person and injuring 17 others.

Firefighters with the New York City Fire Department said the fire broke out on the third floor of a six-story structure in Harlem. Flames began blowing into the hallway through the blazing unit's open door, blocking the stairway exit and trapping people on that floor and above. 

Some occupants were hanging out of the building's windows when help arrived three-and-a-half minutes after the 911 call, but one person, who has now been identified as 27-year-old journalist Fazil Khan, had already fallen to the alley underneath, authorities said. 

An FDNY official said firefighters rescued the others in the windows by roping down from the roof — a technique the department typically only utilizes once or twice a year — while other responders went into the building to get tenants out, including three who were found unconscious on upper floors.

Out of the 18 injured, 12, including Khan, were rushed to a local hospital. Khan succumbed to his injuries there, while at least four people were still in critical condition as of Sunday. 

Khan's employers, including The City and The Hechinger Report, posted condolences on X, with the former calling him a "friend to many in our newsroom."

This is the latest deadly tragedy to be attributed to lithium-ion batteries. Earlier this month, the FDNY announced the batteries are the leading cause of fires and fire-related deaths in New York City. 

Last year, the batteries caused 267 fires and claimed 18 deaths in the city — up from six the year prior and a large jump from zero in 2019 and 2020.

But the issue isn't limited to New York City. Here's what we know about the growing problem.

Where are lithium-ion battery incidents happening?

Because these batteries are a convenient — and typically a safe — energy source, they can be found pretty much anywhere. They're in your laptops, smartphones, some toys, electric bikes and scooters, cars and more. 

Since 2020, FAA data shows lithium-ion battery incidents on planes have continued to rise, with some personal devices catching fire mid-flight. There's also electrocution, explosion risk or the hydrogen gas these damaged batteries can give off, which injured three people in a Tampa children's clinic last year. 

The dangers stem from loose regulation: Many lithium-ion batteries sold in recent years that have circumvented safety specifications, and minimal oversight has allowed companies to do so. This allows uncertified and dangerous batteries into consumers' homes, sometimes without their awareness. 

This is a particular risk with e-scooters and e-bikes. As their popularity has grown, some customers have begun charging their lithium-ion batteries in their homes. Just one instance of improper charging can cause the battery to internally short circuit. That creates heat that can turn into flammable gas, which can then pressurize and burst the battery.

Electric scooter linked to fire that killed 2 prompts 'urgent' warning
Electric scooter linked to fire that killed 2 prompts 'urgent' warning

Electric scooter linked to fire that killed 2 prompts 'urgent' warning

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How consumers can avoid the risks

When buying a lithium-ion battery-powered device, officials say to look for the Underwriters Laboratories Mark to ensure it's been safely tested. It's always recommended to use the manufacturer's cord and power adapter specifically made for the device.

Since September, New York City has enforced e-bike battery certification at retailers, meaning those purchases should come with a compliant charging source. The FDNY's chief has also appealed to Congress to make this a national standard.

For now, the FDNY recommends those charging the batteries at home to avoid placing them near anything flammable and to keep them at room temperature. This includes keeping them away from heat sources — including power strips — and your pillow, bed and couch.

It's also advised to never overcharge lithium-ion batteries — so don't plug them in overnight. 

And just in case, the FDNY says to never block your primary way in or out of a room if you're charging a lithium-ion battery in it.