The danger of lithium‐ion (li-ion) batteries - product safety ACCC consumer survey

Swollen, damaged or malfunctioning batteries can be a major fire and safety risk, but a lot of people are unaware of the hazard these common batteries present. For this reason, the ACCC is seeking information via a survey about consumer sentiment and knowledge relating to safety issues associated with lithium-ion batteries.

I’ve copied some background info from the ACCC below, and if you have a few minutes to spare then completing the survey can play a part in improving product safety in Australia. The survey is located here and will close on Friday 11 November. Thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to take the survey!

Background:

The ACCC is scoping product safety issues and risk mitigation strategies in relation to
lithium-ion batteries as one of our product safety priority areas for 2022-23.

The ACCC undertakes an annual scan to identify current and emerging product safety
issues. Through these scans we have identified products containing li-ion batteries as an
emerging concern over the past three years.

In the last 5 years, the ACCC has had approximately 200 contacts relating to li-ion batteries.
Many of these involved mobile phones and tablets, with approximately 50 of the reports
involving an injury.

We are aware that only a fraction of incidents are reported to us. Internal media monitoring
indicates that there are increasing numbers of incidents resulting in serious injuries, fatalities
and property damage in Australia and overseas involving a broad range of products
containing li-ion batteries.

There is a potentially high risk to public safety due to the widespread use of li-ion batteries in
a growing range of consumer products.

A lack of awareness of which products contain li-ion batteries and the risks associated with
li-ion batteries by consumers may mean that the consumers are unable to perceive or
safeguard against the risks appropriately.

The ACCC’s key concerns include:

  • the increasing prevalence of products containing li-ion batteries in Australian homes,
    including power tools, camping and gardening equipment, e-bikes and scooters, and
    electronic devices such as phones and laptops,

  • the potential for li-ion batteries to be overcharged resulting in appliances overheating
    and potentially becoming a fire risk,

  • incorrect disposal of li-ion batteries, including the potential for fires as a result of
    being compacted in garbage trucks and the potential environmental impact,

  • battery damage due to punctures or environmental exposure, which can increase the
    likelihood of fires,

  • the fact that li-ion battery fires are volatile, have a tendency to escalate quickly, and
    are difficult to extinguish, and

  • an apparent lack of consumer awareness about the potential risks and how to safely
    charge products.

FAQs
Why do li-ion batteries catch fire?
Li-ion batteries contain electrolytes that are highly flammable. ‘Thermal runaway’ can cause
these batteries to rapidly overheat and create self-sustaining fires that cannot be easily
extinguished by water spray or use of a fire extinguisher. A malfunction of li-ion batteries
may also result in violent bursting of one or multiple battery cells, hissing and release of
toxic, flammable and explosive gases. This may occur due to:

  • Overcharging
  • Use of charging equipment that is incompatible with the device or non-compliant
  • Subjecting the battery to heat
  • Subjecting the battery to moisture or allowing water to ingress
  • Physical abuse (e.g. dropping, crushing, piercing, and/or vibrations)
  • Short-circuiting, battery cell malfunctions or system faults
  • Defects or contamination introduced during manufacture

How do I know if a product contains a li-ion battery?
Phones, computers, e-cigarettes, toys, vacuum cleaners, gardening tools and other
household battery powered tools often contain rechargeable li-ion batteries. There is no
mandatory requirement to label devices that contain li-ion batteries, however many will be
labelled with “lithium ion”, “Li-ion”, “Li-po”, “lithium-polymer” or some other variation of “Li”. If
the battery is rechargeable and has “Li” or “lithium” printed on it, you may assume that it is a
li-ion battery.

How can I prevent a product containing li-ion batteries from catching fire?

  • Only purchase and use devices and equipment from reputable manufacturers and
    suppliers.

  • Only use chargers that are supplied with the equipment or device, or third-party
    charging equipment that is compatible with the battery specifications. Using chargers
    with incorrect power delivery (voltage and current) can cause damage to the battery
    including overheating that can lead to fires.

  • Check that the device and charger bear the Regulatory Compliance Mark, to show
    that it has met the relevant Australian Standards under the Electrical Equipment
    Safety System (EESS). Consumers can also go to eess.gov.au to check whether
    their charger is approved for use in Australia.

  • Avoid leaving batteries or devices unattended while being charged or charging
    overnight. Once the indicator shows that a device or battery has been fully charged,
    disconnect it from the charger.

  • Many devices (those made by reputable manufacturers) monitor their battery’s level
    of charge and switch the charger off once it is nearing full charge. Make sure this
    feature is included in battery-equipped devices and chargers before leaving them to
    charge unattended.

  • Don’t charge batteries or devices on combustible and insulating surfaces such as
    beds, sofas or carpet, and keep them away from highly flammable materials such as
    blankets, clothing, and paper.

  • Larger batteries and equipment such as power tools and electric scooters should be
    charged in the garage, shed or carport away from living spaces.

  • Ensure functioning smoke/heat alarms are installed wherever you charge your
    lithium-ion battery containing devices.

  • Never store or leave batteries and devices in areas where they can be exposed to
    heat or moisture. This includes in:

    • Direct sunlight or
    • Parked vehicles.
  • Don’t use batteries or devices that show signs of damage.

What are the signs of a damaged battery?

  • Pungent odours
  • Discolouration, blistering, bulging, or swelling of the casing
  • Leaking electrolyte
  • Heating up and feeling extremely hot to touch
  • Abnormal popping, hissing or crackling sounds
  • Smoke and fumes
  • Mechanical damage: cracked, dented, punctured or crushed.

What should I do with a damaged device or battery?
Do not put these batteries in regular waste or recycling collection bins.
If your battery or device is leaking or damaged (but not overheated or off-gassing), place it in
a clear plastic bag and take it to a community recycling centre, waste management centre or
hazardous household waste collection point for disposal.

How should I dispose of undamaged li-ion batteries?
Li-ion batteries should not be placed into household waste bins or recycling bins, as they can
cause fires during waste collection, transportation, handling and processing.
Undamaged batteries (not swollen, punctured, or leaking, etc.) can be safely disposed of at
a battery recycling drop off point. It is recommended that battery terminals are taped over
with sticky tape or electrical tape before placing them into battery recycling collection bins.

More information on where and how to dispose of used batteries can be found from:

  • B-cycle
  • Planet Ark
  • Mobile Muster
  • Australian Battery Recycler’s Initiative

What if my device or battery is smoking or on fire?
Thermal runaway events involving batteries can occur rapidly and can often be quite violent,
involving toxic smoke and vapours, flames and metal projectiles.

Never touch a swollen or ruptured device or battery with bare hands as the heat
and/or/chemicals can cause severe burns.

If the device or battery starts to smoke or emit flames, follow this advice given by Fire and
Rescue NSW.

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Done. It only takes a minute unless there is something from experience to add.

The question asking whether a consumer is swapping chargers between devices. It will be interesting to hear how the ACCC assess the question.

Thoughts:
It’s something many would consider usual. The majority of the devices that come with lithium technology batteries are supplied with a charger with a USB port. Many products are promoted as being safe to charge from any USB port or charger.

Some devices I’ve more recently acquired do not have a charger supplied. The recently acquired DJI drone being one example, although it has a special cradle for that purpose, or direct from USB to the handheld base or drone. The lithium jump starter pack for the car was also charger-less. Recommended is a minimum 2 amp output USB charger.

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I was also thinking about the charger issue with li-ion battery devices, just a general observation but it does seem like most li-ion devices have a specific charger that supplied with the device - e.g. stick vacs or laptops. The exception in my household is iPhone chargers, we have a couple of spares obtained from the local supermarket. These are the Energizer ones so even though they’re not Apple cables, I’m comfortable using them.

Another thought, some of my li-ion devices stay on charge overnight. For example, the stick vac sits in a cradle and it’s clearly designed to be housed there. However, we do unplug or switch off power points when leaving the house.

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Completed the survey and included my experiences with these batteries.

Thank you for the link.

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One of my concerns not covered by the ACCC is the proliferation of non-OEM replacement batteries and counterfeits.

We have experienced buying a replacement Li-ion battery for a Samsung tablet. Samsung no longer kept spares, so we had to try and find a OEM battery replacement. Searching online many sellers, including bricks and mortar shops that sell electronic spares, claimed they have Samsung OEM batteries, even though they were no longer produced by Samsung.

We ended buying online only to find on the batteries arrival, that while it was badged Samsung, the battery was non-OEM. It swelled and ceased working after a couple of days. We got a refund.

Tried another seller selling Samsung labelled batteries claiming to be OEM, but these weren’t OEM either. They were slightly smaller and thicker than the original OEM one we had. We tried this battery and after about a month wouldn’t charge to full and could only get about 30 minutes use from the device. It has also swelled. Contacted seller but the seller had disappeared. Lost the cost of the battery.

Ended up putting the original OEM battery back in the device even though it had deteriorated, it was better than risking buying another online.

Knowing what is a quality OEM replacement is impossible and it is likely if one can’t get an OEM battery from the manufacturer, they could be buying batteries of dubious and interior quality, possibly risking fires and/or equipment damage.

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It is unclear to me whether the scope of this includes household PV systems, which have Li batteries a zillion times bigger than your average gadget. For the purposes of the survey I chose to ignore that use.

This is in line with a recent EU directive, which makes it illegal to supply a charger by default for certain types of device (mobile phones, tablets, …). However I have a horrible feeling that they are going to find out that “any charger” + “any device” = “may or may not work well or at all”.

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Some as you suggest like stick vacuums use the charging cradle as a storage device. EG Dyson which can be left connected to charge until needed. It’s one feature to assess and cross check with the manual for future Choice reviews. I’ve also several devices which come with advice to leave on charge for no more than 24hrs or to remove when the device indicates it is fully charged.

There’s greater scope for confusion and error than consistency. The E-bike falls into the remove from charge category as do the packs supplied for the big trade brand battery drill and tool kit. In contrast the laptop suggests changed settings if connected most of the time to a charger to help extend the battery life.

It’s good that the ACCC is showing interest and asking consumers. To put the risk into perspective 60 years past electrical fires in the home more not uncommon, but obviously unrelated to lithium battery or any rechargeable battery technology.

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Completed the survey. I remember hearing in the news a, few years ago the air safety board mentioned about having tje same type of battery on board need to be aware how they get stored. I distinctly remember the news talking about going up at heights air pressure has, an, effect. Pretty worrying to hear that. With sp many portable devices

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We charge our iphones overnight and rarely use the Apple chargers because some of them have failed, and generally we utilize chargers with more than one charging port like the Apple ones.

We also had several brands of torches which sat in charging cradles all the time as they acted as night lights via their light sensors. The rechargable handheld vacuum similarly sits patiently awaiting someone to grab it. We also have clocks with rechargeable battery for backup that just sit there day in day out until the blackout demonstrates that the battery had given up the ghost. Our laptops mainly sit connected to power, and don’t forget PCs have a battery too.

The Li-on batteries are all pervasive!

The other point to ponder is the disposal of the bung Li-on batteries; I admit to always throwing batteries in the bin. I can’t recall seeing any battery recycling bins anywere, and even if there were, it wouldn’t be a good idea to throw a potentially combustible battery in with all the other potentially comustible batteries would it?

We don’t have ‘tips’ any more, only recycling centres (if you have one nearby); we are lucky that we don’t have to pay to enter, but our southern compatriots do have to pay to go in to their recycling depot. Can’t imagine people being willing to pay just to dispose of some batteries.

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Completed the survey, and included comments about the various Lithium batteries I’ve used over many years, including for storing energy in my off-grid system.

They say the same thing about bicycle tyres, insisting you let the air out of them so that they don’t explode, which is nonsense unless the tyre was ridiculously thin or damaged and about to blow out anyway. Tyres in good condition can easily withstand much greater than their standard inflation pressure.
I suspect any news talking up batteries exploding due to reduced air pressure is similarly not based on reality, as batteries in good condition do not have any large internal pressure to start with, and their containers are quite robust

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Tsk tsk. That’s the one place that batteries don’t go.

Mobile phone batteries and laptop batteries can go to Officeworks.

Some further info: Battery Recycling in the City of Sydney Council area - Planet Ark Recycling Near You (adjust search to suit your location)

That also covers AAA, AA, C, D, 9V and button cells, which can go to a mass of places e.g. Aldi, Officeworks, Bunnings, Battery World.

Also: https://bcycle.com.au/

Yes. You could also check with your local council for the collection centre operated by or on behalf of them - but the location may or may not be convenient.

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I go to both Aldi and Bunnings a lot, and yet do not remember seeing a battery collection bin. Perhaps it was my oversight because I was not looking for them, or perhaps they are not prominent?

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In ALDI they are usually at the packing bench and are a round bin somewhat shaped like a battery. I have never seen an ALDI lately that doesn’t have one. They are placed on the floor at the end furthest from the exit.

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Our local Woollies has one. There are at least 1000 Woollies similar to our local store.

And they take more than batteries.

Officeworks as well, and also good for taking used printer cartridges for recycling as well.

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I can’t speak for your local Aldi or Bunnings but I can guarantee you that my local Aldi has a receptacle into which batteries can be deposited. The picture here is about right, in particular with the unusual opening … at the front of the store, with the result that you don’t have to go through the barriers and come out through the checkouts in order to deposit batteries.

Yes, Officeworks will also take laptops, printers, keyboards, mice, mobile phones, mobile phone accessories, hard disks, flash drives, memory cards, … Basically all your IT and telecommunications technotrash.

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Great to know that

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Still a topic with ongoing concerns for battery powered rideables.

But what about all those other now very common household items with lithium battery power, built in or removable? EG hand held and laptop style devices, stick vacuums, mobile phones, battery drills and garden tools, ……
It’s a not too risky assumption most households now have one or more of these. Far more than the numbers of e-scooters etc.

Fires or catastrophic failures seem far less common from common household items with lithium battery technology considering how common they are today. Is it that manufacturers and suppliers realise the risks to brand and reputation if they do fail catastrophically? Or is there some other explanation?

For e-scooters, e-bikes, etc is the frequency of failures due to deficiencies with,

  1. Product design,
  2. Quality of manufacture and testing,
  3. Choice of technology,
  4. Consumer education,
  5. Lack of regulation,

Or all of the above?

It should come as no surprise there are several different chemistries used for rechargeable lithium ion batteries. One in particular more likely to cause a problem is preferred (lower cost, less weight) over those less likely to fail with serious consequence.

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I suspect much of the problem is due to the chargers being used. Cheap and nasty chargers that don’t taper the charge to avoid over-voltage will heat the battery, leading to the thermal run-away that causes the battery to combust.
Of course there are likely to be low quality batteries, batteries that have had physical damage etc, which can also cause overheating.

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