Apple Recalls Batteries Prone to Overheating

By Yuki Noguchi and Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 25, 2006

Apple Computer Inc. yesterday issued a recall of 1.8 million laptop batteries because they pose a fire hazard, a move that follows a similar recall last week by Dell Inc. of 4.1 million batteries, some of which ignited while in use.

Apple initiated the recall of lithium-ion batteries in some of its iBook and PowerBook computers sold from October 2003 to August 2006 after receiving nine reports of overheating that caused minor burns or property damage.

The battery cells used in the recalled Dell and Apple computers were manufactured by the same company, Sony Energy Devices Corp., in Japan.

The laptop industry's recent problems highlight the difficulties battery technology faces in trying to keep pace with the swift advances in consumer electronics, increasing devices' functionality and sophistication while decreasing their size. Putting more functions on a cellphone or laptop can strain the power source, creating a tradeoff between safety and effectiveness.

"As more people carry more electronics and use them for more things, we'll have more incidents," said Paul Eng, an editor with Consumer Reports. Although the reported incidence of explosions and injury is low, consumers are wary of the hot batteries on their laptops and cellphones after long periods of use, he said. "The good news is that companies will strive to produce better and safer technology."

Next month, manufacturers including Dell and Lenovo Group Ltd. are scheduled to discuss battery standards at a meeting in San Jose sponsored by IPC, an electronics trade group that promotes the development of industry-wide standards.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission advised consumers with Apple laptop batteries with model numbers A1061, A1078, A1079, and A1148 and certain serial numbers to stop using the computers immediately because of they could become fire hazards.

David and Cindy Brown of Iowa have already determined that an iBook that belongs to their son falls under this recall.

In April, another son's iBook burst into flames after making popping sounds and smoldering, she said.

"We still have the charred carpet," Cindy Brown said.

She said she was disappointed in Apple's response. After the fire, she said, they were told by Apple that the battery pack was not to blame because it was not part of an earlier recall.

"They told us our computers were safe," she said.

None of the affected laptop computers are the newer models made with Intel chips, said Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple. The company set up a Web page about the recall -- http://support.apple.com/batteryprogram -- to help owners determine whether their computers are subject to it.

After the Dell recall, the consumer safety commission said it broadened its investigation to other Sony laptop battery cells, but spokeswoman Julie M. Vallese said that, barring new information, the commission did not expect any other recalls related to this issue. The Associated Press reported yesterday that Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry ordered Sony and Dell to investigate the battery problems and report on their findings by the end of the month.

Sony spokesman Rick Clancy said yesterday that Apple's problems were traced to contamination in the manufacturing process in a Japanese facility that caused metallic particles in the battery's cell to short-circuit and overheat, he said. Those problems have since been resolved, he said.

Sony estimated that costs related to the Apple and Dell recalls would total between $172 million and $258 million. Apple's Dowling said the recall would have no material effect on the company's financial situation. Shares of Apple stock rose 50 cents yesterday, closing at $67.81.

While Dell, the world's largest personal-computer maker, faces many other manufacturing and distribution challenges, Apple is likely to bounce back from any issues related to this recall, said Tim Bajarin, president of market analysis firm Creative Strategies Inc. Apple is already benefiting from the 25 percent annual growth of laptop sales, and a recall probably won't affect that, he said.

The publicity will largely push companies to develop minimum safety standards for batteries, Bajarin said, adding, "It's the best thing for consumers."

Apple has had two previous recalls of laptop batteries. Last May, it recalled 128,000 batteries made by LG Chem Ltd. of South Korea that were used with its PowerBook G4 and iBook G4. In August 2004, it recalled about 28,000 LG Chem batteries.


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