Deadly dilemma: NYC searching for effective measures to regulate lithium-ion batteries

Dan Krauth Image
Thursday, April 20, 2023
NYC searching for effective measures to regulate lithium-ion batteries
Since January, there have been 63 fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in New York City resulting in five deaths.

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- An e-battery can explode in an apartment or building next to yours and it's out of your control. It's happening in record numbers in New York, which has become ground zero for lithium-ion battery fires in the country.

The city's struggling with how to keep people safe as the FDNY is responding to a new fire almost every day while also not taking away people's right to use them.

"They spread very, very quickly and they come on without notice," said FDNY Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn. "They're extremely volatile, they almost explode," he said.

The number of e-battery fires from e-bikes and scooters doubled last year to 220, and the city's on track to surpass last year's number in 2023. Since January, there have been 63 fires and 5 deaths.

"We're set to be way ahead of our fatality mark from last year," said Flynn. "You can't argue with deaths," he said.

The use of the devices exploded when they became legal in New York three years ago during the height of the pandemic. Now they're used by more than 40,000 delivery workers in the city alone.

For safety tips and information on which ones the FDNY recommends purchasing, click here.

"I don't think we understand how unsafe they were to be honest with you," said City Council Member Keith Powers.

City leaders said one of the main issues is people buying uncertified batteries and chargers and charging them in dangerous locations.

The fire marshal said batteries have exploded both while charging and while not being charged.

The fire marshal has to investigate every one of them. They're having a difficult time tracing which batteries are causing the most problems because in most cases, the evidence gets burnt beyond recognition.

The FDNY chose to ban e-batteries from its headquarters building in 2021. Many private buildings are choosing to do the same. There's no talk of banning them citywide but they are trying to regulate them.

Last month, the mayor signed five bills into law that make it illegal to sell or rent uncertified batteries in the city or recondition them.

But until then, the fires keep happening. A fatal fire likely caused by a lithium-ion battery killed two children last week in Queens.

"There's a gap between when they got signed into law and then when they actually go into effect," said Powers. "What I'm concerned about is what happening the meantime."

Council member Powers is pushing to get two more bills passed that would allow people to swap out cheaper batteries with new ones and provide fireproof charging cases.

"I think it's a crisis," said Powers.

Ligia Guallpa, the Executive Director of the Workers Justice Project that helps represent more than 60,000 delivery workers said, none of the laws tackle the immediate problems.

"There's nowhere to charge it, that's the problem," said Guallpa. "There's limited amount of spaces where deliveristas can charge their batteries, a lot of deliveristas don't even understand how to charge due to a lack of education," she said.

As of now, there are no designated areas in the city where people can charge their e-devices safely. Most people have no other choice but to charge them at home with batteries they already own.

"Right now everyone's talking about UL-certified batteries but that was not the conversation and that was not the requirement when NYC allowed all these manufacturers to bring all these batteries," said Guallpa.

Meanwhile, anyone can go online and buy an uncertified battery at a quarter of the price.

"We're throwing a lot of resource at it," said Flynn. "It's very difficult to find the origin of the device many times so that makes it almost impossible for us to say this is what the problem was."

It's a problem that continues as the city's encouraging people to use them and increasing access to where people can ride them, while also seeing more fires than anywhere else in the country.


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