Batteries/Safety/Issue Beyond 030808

Battery Safety - An Issue Beyond Creating Safe Cells and Packs
(August,03) News from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has batteries periodically appear several times a year when they are involved in a recall for a variety of reasons.  One June 19th, there was a recall of crib mobile toys sold by Fisher-Price.  Of the 233,000 units sold between December 1999 and December 2001, 30 reports were received of “batteries leaking from the toy’s battery compartment, including six reports of chemical burns to babies.”  

In researching this issue in more detail, it was found that Fisher-Price did not include batteries in the mobile unit.  The instructions  provided in the toy packet told the consumer to purchase 6 AA Alkaline batteries, two for the remote and four for the mobile unit itself.  Although specifically stressing the chemistry, Alkaline, many purchasing the product may have looked at the battery size, AA, and decided to use any battery as long as it fit in the battery slot.  Unfortunately, a variety of batteries such as carbon-zinc (a very inexpensive battery) and Nickel-metal hydride (a rechargeable battery) also come in that size.  For the  person who has little knowledge and experience with battery chemistries, a selection of batteries of another chemistry or a mix/match of chemistries could have been inserted in the battery slots.  Unfortunately, such information is not available and batteries are getting a tough wrap. Who is to blame?

Because utilizing the wrong batteries can cause a plethora of problems, it might be helpful to determine a standard to label batteries.  For example, a thin yellow strip on a battery could identify it as an Alkaline and a thin red strip could identify it as Carbon-zinc.  The instructions in the packet could then tell the user to use Alkalines with the red strips, but it could also show a color coding so that the user could purchase the correct chemistry.  Universal color coding in traffic signals has worked well throughout most parts of the world, so why not apply color coding; it is understood, regardless of language.    

Batteries also get a “bad rap” when included in a case.  Batteries in products are encased in  enclosures which provide no protection for possible leakage of chemicals.  Is this the battery manufacturer’s fault?  Perhaps not, but the public image of batteries leaking is negative for the battery industry.  In the case of the Fisher-Price crib mobile toy, the Company is recalling all units and providing free repair kits containing a foam rubber seal for the battery compartment.  Hind sight here would have included such a seal initially; in this case, penny pinching did more harm than good.   With more mobile units, remotes,  portables and wireless devices being used and with increments in power, manufacturers should take a look at the safety of the compartment storing the batteries.  Perhaps standards for at least minimal protection would be of value.  Is this the responsibility of the device manufacturer whose product needs batteries or the battery manufacturers?

Perhaps in some cases, there were Alkaline batteries inserted correctly in the crib toy, and yet an Alkaline  leaked.  If so, it is not known if they were major brands or generic labels.  (Editor’s note: In visiting Hong Kong in 1998, we were given some major brand Alkaline batteries, which  leaked.)  

With three-quarters of all primary (i.e. Alkaline and Carbon-zinc) batteries being purchased by consumers in the U.S., there needs to be more attention to safety issues.  The U.S. market for primary batteries  in 2002 was $3,810 million and is projected to grow to $4,820 million by 2007, according to  a June 2003  study, “Batteries” by the Freedonia Group.  Because this area is showing growth potential, current  manufacturers will expand and newcomers will want to get a piece of the pie, but in doing so, the potential  of having battery problems  with  battery-related safety issues could increase.  Perhaps some simple measures, including global standards, are needed.  Those involved with Lithium-ion and the IEEE are already taking a lead to make their cells, packs and final product design  are safe for their industry by collaborating and writing standards.  Such actions should be commended.

In a related story, see A Revisit to Lithium-ion Safety,’