Should Lithium Batteries Be Classified ‘Hazardous Material’?

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Should lithium batteries be regarded as “hazardous material” by the U.S. government? It’s what the Obama administration wanted, but a House bill passed last week bars limits that exceed international standards on shipments of lithium cells and batteries–a move expected to save companies like Apple, Panasonic, and Samsung billions in packaging, shipping, training, and related costs.

The original rule proposed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration hit the legislative docket over a year ago, and would’ve classified laptop computers, cell phones, and digital cameras that use lithium batteries as “hazardous materials,” thus prompting new safety requirements for manufacturers, resellers, and the airline industry.

Lithium’s a soft, silvery metal employed in industrial components, from heat-resistant glasses and ceramics to both standard lithium and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Lithium batteries include disposable types, such as the spherical ones employed in computers, watches, PDAs, camcorders, and calculators, and you’re probably familiar with the lithium-ion variant (think larger batteries, like your laptop’s) whereby lithium ions swap electrode positions to “charge” or “discharge.”

But lithium’s also potentially dangerous. Remember tales of laptop batteries bursting into flames and all those mass recalls? The ones involving tens of millions of batteries used by nearly every laptop manufacturer? U.S. regulators–supported by pilot unions concerned about fires in cargo bays–wanted restrictions on lithium battery shipments (note: not individual passenger carry-ons) for fear they could overheat in transit and catch on fire or explode.

In October 2010, federal aviation regulators actually issued a safety alert warning of fire hazards and urging airlines to take precautions with cargo shipments. And a recent report on the crash of a UPS Boeing 747 in Dubai last September indicates lithium-ion batteries were responsible for the accident, which killed both pilots.

It sounds like we need better safety guidelines of some sort, but lest we assume the industry’s trying to shirk responsibility, the companies that lobbied to have the January 2010 rule put down aren’t flatly opposed to the idea. They just want the U.S. to adopt international standards, which apparently have fewer restrictions.

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