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Lithium-ion battery fires – A new global fire safety risk? 

Awareness of the fire risks that lithium-ion batteries pose is growing. Towns and cities globally have witnessed a rapid increase in the number of e-bikes and e-scooters on the streets, fire safety experts are raising the alarm of the risks that this trend poses.

And, with zero emission vehicles and EV infrastructure forming a major part of several Government’s clean energy strategies, it’s a challenge that fire safety professionals will have to face up to. IFSEC Insider’s James Moore reports on the issue.

The causes of fires continue to evolve. Electric blankets, space heaters, faulty white goods and cooking appliances have previously been common reasons behind fires – and many continue to be so. However, the fire industry appears to be facing a new and alarming risk – lithium-ion batteries.

While lithium-ion batteries are used for a wide variety of everyday products such as smartphones and electric toothbrushes, larger units that require regular charging, such as e-bikes and e-scooters are causing alarm. Often stored in homes and flats, or left in stairwells and corridors, there have been growing reports of fires caused by such products.

Though there is limited data relating to the number of fires, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) in the UK has highlighted that reported fires in London caused by e-bikes and e-scooters rose from eight in 2019, to 24 in 2020, to 59 by December 2021. Privately owned e-vehicles have been banned for safety reasons on London’s tubes and busses by Transport for London (TfL) since December 2021.

As many experts point out, the dangers don’t stop there – pointing to the potential risks of underground car parks full with electric cars and charging points in the near future.

Electric vehicle markets are seeing “exponential growth” as sales exceeded 10 million in 2022 according to a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). China is a frontrunner in this area, with Europe and United States the second and third largest markets.

Emerging markets are also witnessing growth, with sales tripling in India, Thailand and Indonesia collectively and demand increasing in countries such as Egypt, where interest in the market is slowly but surely picking up.

The risks of fire may also be higher in climates with hotter temperatures. Lithium-ion batteries will heat up when being charged or in use, and if an electric vehicle is likely to be in direct sunlight for long periods of time, overheating may be more likely to occur.

Dangerous, non-compliant products on the market

One of the key concerns behind the increasing e-vehicle trend isn’t necessarily with all the devices on the market. Though any lithium-ion battery-based product poses some percentage of risk, the same could be said for any piece of electrical equipment.

However, several reports have demonstrated the risks of poorly manufactured, non-compliant e-bikes and e-scooters. For instance:

·       In June 2022, a large blaze at a high-rise in Shepard’s Bush was found to be caused by the failure of an e-bike lithium-ion battery. The incident was attended by 60 firefighters, with the London Fire Brigade underlining concerns, as when the batteries and chargers, they do so “with ferocity” causing fires to develop rapidly.

·       In late September 2022, Bristol City Council reported that a fatal fire at a flat in Twinnell House was started by an electric bike. Residents had expressed concerns about ‘homemade versions’ of e-bikes with cheaper versions of lithium-ion batteries being stored on the upper floors ‘for months’.

·       In March 2023, seven people were injured in a fire in New York. 200 firefighters were required to stem the fire that reportedly started in a lithium-ion battery of a scooter found on the roof of the building. In 2022 – the New York City Fire Department responded to more than 200 e-scooter and e-bike fires.

The NFCC advises that any e-bikes, e-scooters, chargers and batteries should always be purchased from a reputable retailer, with many fires involving counterfeit goods that don’t meet British or European standards.

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) has also issued a similar warning, after discovering nearly 100 fires had been primarily caused by tampered e-bikes in the last year – an 80% increase from 2021.

Safe disposal under the spotlight

Questions have also been raised over the safe disposal of lithium-ion batteries. According to the Environmental Services Association (ESA), fires resulting from lithium-ion battery explosions have cost fire services and waster operators around £158 million a year.

In an article in December 2022, Ben Johnson from the ESA told the UK’s BBC News that more people were putting devices containing these batteries in with household rubbish or mixing them with other recycling.

He explains: “That causes a real problem, because they have a tendency – when damaged – to explode or ignite. And when you put them in general rubbish or recycling, they’re likely to be crushed, compacted, smashed or they might get wet.”

Experts say that lithium-ion batteries should be recycled rather than being sent to landfill, but that they should be stored safely outside a premises and protected from the effects of weather while awaiting proper disposal. Those batteries that have been damaged should be kept separately and placed in a container of sand or similar inert material, such as vermiculite.

Further advice is given in the EU Directive 2006/66/EC (ref. 17).

Further information on lithium-ion battery fires is available in the following articles or webinars:

-          Are E-scooters and similar devices the new major fire risk?

-          Awareness of fire risks from lithium-ion batteries grows amid calls for bans on charging infrastructure and e-bikes and scooters

-          Lithium-Ion battery fires – Your questions answered

-          Webinar: Lithium-Ion Battery Fires – A burning issue in today’s world