‘An emerging threat’: Rising concern about lithium-ion batteries safety amid increase in fires

A recent five-alarm fire in the Bronx is the latest fire to be connected to a lithium-ion battery, but Toronto is seeing an increase in similar fires too. Nick Westoll reports.

As the City of New York continues to deal with the aftermath of a major fire that officials said was caused by a lithium-ion battery, it’s part of a growing trend of fires caused by batteries that Toronto is seeing too.

On Sunday, New York City Fire Department (FDNY) crews were called to a plaza after officials said a battery on an e-scooter exploded. They said it took less than five minutes for the building to be engulfed in flames. It’s not clear why exactly the battery exploded.

Seven people were injured and several businesses were destroyed, prompting demands for action, additional regulation and education.

“This is an emerging threat here in New York City. We have seen a quadrupling in e-bike fires just in the last few months alone. We are incredibly concerned about the damage they can cause, the loss of life that it can cause, and the danger it faces our first responders,” Laura Kavanagh, the FDNY’s fire commissioner, told reporters on Tuesday during a news conference.

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Kavanagh made the comments alongside Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-New York), who represents the Bronx in the United States House of Representatives.

“We’re here to address a mounting crisis not only in our city but throughout our country,” he told reporters.

Torres said he would introduce a bill to strengthen consumer protections and force stronger standards for lithium-ion batteries, especially as the use of e-scooters and e-bikes increases among workers.

“No delivery worker should have to choose between his life or his livelihood, between his employment and his safety.”

A statement from Torres’ office said FDNY crews reported responding to more than 400 fires in the past four years caused by lithium-ion batteries. Of those fires, 12 people died, more than 300 people were injured and more than 320 buildings were damaged.

Fires linked to lithium-ion batteries more than doubled in year: Toronto Fire Services deputy chief

The issue of fires starting from lithium-ion batteries isn’t restricted to just south of the border. There has been a year-over-year increase in similar fires.

Larry Cocco, the deputy chief of community risk reduction with Toronto Fire Services, said there were 29 fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in 2022, up from 11 in 2021 — a 142-per cent increase.

“Lithium-ion batteries [are] able to store a lot of energy in a rather small package and with that increased energy though comes increased risk,” he told CityNews.

Cocco said thermal runaways (a reaction of hot gases and vapour when a battery fails, causing an explosion) have been a major concern tied to the fires. He recalled a particularly concerning incident.

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“Lithium-ion batteries, when they’re exposed to fire, also can fail, so it’s creating a different risk for our first responders,” Cocco said, noting thermal runaways can happen weeks after a battery was damaged.

“We had an incident recently in Toronto, where a large quantity of lithium-ion batteries was affected by fire and those batteries reignited 87 days later. Thermal runaway occurred and we had to respond again.”

He said Toronto Fire Services staff are trying to respond to the emerging concern.

“We’re currently working on this issue. We have a working group internally on public education messaging, emergency response techniques and tactics and post-fire mitigation strategies,” Cocco said.

Tips for minimizing risk of fires from lithium-ion batteries

Cocco said while the technology is generally safe and there hasn’t been a large volume of fires, nothing is incident-proof.

He gave several tips for minimizing risks:

  • Make sure the product has a CSA or UL designation (the organizations in Canada and the United States, respectively, that thoroughly test the equipment)
  • Pay attention to, and follow, electronic charging recommendations
  • Use the charging device that comes with the item to avoid overcharging
  • Replace batteries with ones recommended by the manufacturer, be extra careful about and avoid after-market ones not rated for device
  • Don’t leave devices charging for an extended time without monitoring
  • Don’t charge items on soft surfaces like beds since the devices can’t cool properly and could overheat
  • Properly dispose of damaged lithium-ion batteries as soon as possible
  • Don’t throw lithium-ion batteries in garbage, treat as hazardous waste (Cocco said firefighters have had to respond to fires at waste transfer stations caused by disposal)

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