Fire Hazard Causes Dell To Recall Laptop Batteries

By Sara Kehaulani Goo and Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dell Inc. said yesterday that it would recall 4.1 million lithium-ion batteries for laptop computers after several dangerous incidents in which the batteries burst into flames and damaged other property.

The move by the world's largest PC maker marks one of the biggest safety recalls in the history of consumer electronics and serves as a setback for Dell, which has been hit by stiff competition and steep customer-service costs, causing earnings to tumble and its stock price to lag in recent months. The recall is also likely to intensify reviews underway at agencies that have been studying the dangers of battery packs commonly used in many electronic devices, from iPods to portable DVD players and cellphones.

The National Transportation Safety Board last month held a hearing about the safety of lithium batteries on airplanes after a fire occurred Feb. 7 on a cargo jet. The UPS plane, which was carrying lithium-ion batteries, among other items, caught fire in flight and landed safely in Philadelphia. Investigators have not announced the cause of the fire and have not made any safety recommendations about the transportation of such batteries.

In a separate incident, a Dell laptop ignited during a conference several months ago in Japan. Digital photos from the event posted at online news sites show flames shooting from the laptop, as if an explosion had occurred, leaving burn marks on the green tablecloth under the computer. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which said Dell brought the situation to the agency's attention under federal guidelines, said the company has documented half a dozen such accidents.

"We feel we have determined what the problem is and that problem has been corrected. Considering the volumes of lithium-ion batteries used in the world today, not just in notebook computers . . . the incidents involving some kind of overheating are really quite rare," said Jess Blackburn, a Dell spokesman. "We certainly have our customer safety at the front of our concerns."

The recalled batteries, components of which were made by Sony Corp., were used in several types of Dell Latitude, Inspiron, Precision and XPS models sold from April 2004 through July 2006 through the company's catalogue, Web site or over the phone. Consumers are advised to stop using the batteries immediately and contact Dell for a replacement at , which the company said would be online as of today. Customers may continue to use the computers by turning them off, ejecting the battery and using the power cord instead.

Sony said the recall would have a financial impact on the company but declined to discuss details. "Sony is very sensitive and concerned about the quality of our products and safety of our products," said Rick Clancy, a Sony spokesman. "We are supporting Dell's recall."

The problem of lithium-ion batteries overheating is not new, and consumer groups and the aviation safety communities have long been concerned. Battery packs contain cells that sometimes contain microscopic metal pieces, which can become overheated when they come into contact with other components. Usually, when a battery overheats, it causes the computer to shut down. In a few cases, however, the battery has ignited. No one has died in such an accident, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said.

"Once the battery reaches incredibly high temperatures, it doesn't have a mechanism to vent heat or cut itself off," commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said. The Dell recall stemmed from a quality-control issue, he said.

In an incident last month, Thomas Forqueran, 62, of Arizona, was loading his truck and smelled smoke. Flames were shooting out of his Dell Inspiron laptop, which he had placed on the passenger side of the vehicle, and spread as the fire ignited ammunition that was also in the truck. The truck, a 1966 Ford F-250 passed down from his father, was destroyed by fire.

"I see Dell commercials half a dozen times a night, saying 'What can we build for you today?' " Forqueran said. "And I say, 'Grandpa's truck.' "

Consumer electronics companies play down the safety hazard of lithium-ion batteries, saying that such incidents are rare. Sony said there have been only "a small number" of fires linked to lithium-ion batteries. Sales of the batteries are rising rapidly, the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association said. It said that 2 billion lithium-ion cells, used in making the batteries, are to be sold this year.

The recall yesterday was not the first for Dell, which has recalled more than 330,000 batteries in the past six years because of overheating problems.

The most recent recall came in December and involved about 22,000 notebook computer batteries. Dell had received three reports of batteries overheating. No injuries were reported. In May 2001, Dell voluntarily recalled about 284,000 batteries, warning they could "become very hot, release smoke, and possibly catch fire," a safety commission news release said.

Seven months earlier, Dell had recalled about 27,000 batteries, saying they could "short circuit, even when the battery is not in use."

Problems with overheating rechargeable batteries have led to recalls at several other well-known laptop computer retailers, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Apple Computer Inc.

In documents, the NTSB detailed several dozen fires in cargo shipments and on planes that could be linked to various kinds of batteries. The Federal Aviation Administration also is reviewing the issue. In 2004, rechargeable lithium batteries in a plastic case started a fire during cargo loading at a FedEx hub in Memphis. In March and June 2005, packages of rechargeable lithium batteries caught fire while being shipped.

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company