Everyday lithium batteries at center of debate about cargo handling

By Jia Lynn Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010

The lithium-ion battery quietly fuels modern life. It powers our iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and laptops. It's in the next round of electric cars coming to market this year.

It also has a controversial safety record peppered with fires and recalls. Now the Department of Transportation wants to toughen rules for how the batteries -- and devices containing them -- are shipped on cargo planes. If finalized, the proposed changes would require shippers to treat iPhones as hazardous materials, on par with flammable paint or dry ice with the full weight of regulation and added costs that come with that classification.

Companies such as Apple, UPS and Best Buy say they support stricter safety standards but are worried the rules go too far and could wreak havoc on supply chains. They warn that the changes could raise prices for consumers. And it's a testament to the ubiquity of the lithium-ion battery that the dispute over the transportation proposal has now embroiled everyone from trade partners such as Israel and South Korea to airline pilots, medical device makers and the National Funeral Directors Association.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of DOT, said it's in the middle of rulemaking and would not specify when a final decision is expected. But retailers are concerned that if PHMSA decides to green-light the rules, the regulations could mean trouble for Christmas shipments.

Lithium-ion batteries have skyrocketed in popularity because they're lighter and smaller than other batteries. More than 3.3 billion lithium-ion cells were shipped in 2008, according to industry estimates, up from 1.5 billion in 2005.

They have also been known to ignite because they contain a small amount of flammable solvent. If the batteries overheat or short-circuit, in rare cases the solvent can react and catch fire.

Tech companies such as Dell and Lenovo have issued recalls in recent years for laptop batteries at risk of overheating.

Policymakers have since turned their attention to shipments of these batteries, especially after a 2006 incident at Philadelphia International Airport in which a UPS cargo plane containing lithium batteries caught fire. The National Transportation Safety Board could not determine the exact cause of the fire.

Such incidents have been enough to alarm airline pilots, however, who have taken up the cause of tightening rules with the support of Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House transportation committee.

Regulators currently consider any package containing a lithium-ion battery to be hazardous but exempt small batteries, such as those contained in cellphones. The PHMSA has proposed removing that exemption. Anything containing the batteries would have to be specially packaged and labeled, and anyone shipping it would have to receive hazardous-materials training.

Companies say regulators should focus on better enforcement of existing rules, rather than adding new ones. Industry groups say that in every battery case that has been cited as suspicious, the problem was that people were not following the rules.

The new regulations could affect a massive web of companies, including manufacturers, shippers and retailers. They say costs would be staggering. UPS told PHMSA that complying with the rules would cost the company at minimum $264 million in the first year. And the company said each subsequent year would cost an additional $185 million.

Best Buy submitted a long list of products that would be affected, including portable GPS devices, portable DVD players and TVs, cellphones, cordless headphones, universal remote controls, cameras, camcorders, even electric razors and toothbrushes.

The funeral directors group says the proposed regulations would affect their industry, as well, because many deceased that are flown to funerals have pacemakers and defibrillators, which also contain the batteries.

Because many of the affected devices are flown around the world, the proposed rules have also raised the alarm of some U.S. trade partners, who are worried the rules could act as an unfair trade barrier, since many products would be harder to ship via air to the United States.

"The proposed regulation would threaten the ability to import into the United States batteries and -- more significantly -- products using those batteries, such as medical devices and water meters," said a letter to DOT submitted by Israel's Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor.

Airline pilots insist, however, that regulators move forward with their proposal.

If a battery "overheats on its own and causes a fire," said Mark Rogers, director of the dangerous-goods program for the Air Line Pilots Association, "you need to make sure that situation doesn't become catastrophic."

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