When Verizon Wireless recalled 50,000 counterfeit LG phone batteries last June, it seemed to be an isolated event. Then Kyocera recalled as many as a million fakes four months later. (The company also recalled 140,000 of its model 7135 Smartphones.)
These high-profile recalls involve cell-phone batteries with the potential to overheat, smoke, catch fire or burst. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has investigated more than 100 incidents involving cell phones, batteries - genuine and counterfeit - and chargers since 2002. Most incidents resulted in skin burns and fires. The recalls and investigations highlight three broader problems with the batteries used in cell phones:
Counterfeiting is on the upswing. Worldwide, more than 5 million phony cell-phone batteries and other accessories were destroyed by law-enforcement authorities in 2003. Legitimate lithium-ion batteries cost $40 to $60. But it's easy to make low-quality fakes that look like the originals and sell for a fraction of the price. Counterfeits may lack key safety features to prevent overcharging or dissipate heat, which can otherwise cause these small, power-packed cells to explode and catch fire.
Legitimate batteries can also pose problems. If overcharged, any lithium-ion cell has the potential to erupt, says Jason Howard, chairman of the cell-phone battery working group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, which helps set standards for many electrical products. However, the IEEE also says that safeguards designed into the case of legitimate batteries should minimize hazards if an overcharged cell does erupt.
There are no standards for cell-phone batteries. But that may change this year. The IEEE and the Cellular Telephone and Internet Association, a trade group, with oversight from the CPSC, are meeting to develop voluntary design and performance standards. The group hopes to finish its work by later this year.
In the meantime, Nokia - the world's largest cell-phone manufacturer - is taking steps to thwart counterfeiters. In December, the company began branding its batteries with hard-to-imitate holograms and a 20-digit code hidden under a scratch-off label.
That followed the October announcement by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative of a new program to confiscate many types of fake goods - including counterfeit batteries - through international cooperation, heightened criminal prosecution, tougher border patrol, and increased penalties for counterfeiters.
What can you do to protect yourself from potentially harmful cell-phone batteries? To avoid counterfeits, buy the battery designed for your particular phone, and buy from your wireless service provider or a reputable retailer. Shun cheap aftermarket brands. A cheap battery carrying what appears to be a name brand may well be a fake and not properly manufactured. Even with legitimate batteries, some caution is in order. Our engineers and the CPSC offer these safety tips:
If you remove the battery (or if it has exposed terminals when it's in the phone), keep it away from keys, coins, or other metal objects in your pocket. These could cause a short-circuit.
Keep the battery and the phone away from sources of extreme heat, such as a stove, radiator or glove compartment.
Never sit on a battery. Exerting pressure on the battery can crush it, causing it to short circuit and overheat.
If you drop a phone with a fully charged battery, it could overheat and explode. Leave it on the ground for a minute to make sure there's no problem.
The million-unit Kyocera recall involves rechargeable lithium-ion batteries sold from December 2003 through September 2004 online and through several wireless carriers. The company is notifying customers through wireless carriers' purchase records, but owners can contact Kyocera directly by calling (866) 559-3882 or by going online to www.kyocera-wireless.com/battery.htm. The company will replace counterfeit batteries free of charge.
By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.