Slightly Off Topic but Uber-Safety Gone Mad

Hi Readers! I just learned that the United States Post Office will not allow you to ship anything with a lithium battery — like, say, an iPad — overseas:

Lithium batteries are included in many popular electronic devices such as iPads, Kindles, smartphones, cameras and other electronic devices.  The batteries can explode or catch fire in certain conditions during overseas transport.

This change is required by the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Universal Postal Union (UPU), both of which currently prohibit lithium batteries in mail shipments that are carried on international commercial air transportation.

USPS management anticipates the regulation to be adjusted by January 1, 2013, with customers being able to mail specific quantities of lithium batteries internationally (including APO/FPO/DPO) if the batteries are properly installed in the electronic device.

Gee, have planes been exploding right and left because a passenger dared to bring a laptop on board a transcontinental flight? Talk about under-reported disasters! Or is this a new and shining case of Safety Madness, wherein the teensy chance of something going disastrously wrong creates an entire new and cumbersome way of doing things? Feel free to take a guess. – L.

40 Responses

  1. I think this may be more of a case of trying to keep counterfeits/smuggling from occurring.

  2. if it’s APO, shouldn’t be a problem, unless they’ve changed something in the past 2 years. I had no problem shipping a laptop with accessories, two lithium batteries to Iraq of all places.

  3. And, actually the USPS has included APOs in that ban, stopping the shipment of laptops, iPods and other to the troops.

    It IS sort of safety gone mad because the UPS flight was a whole planeload of batteries, and the thermal runaway can’t happen (er, hasn’t happened very often) with single laptops or iPods. If it does, it is usually because the laptop is damaged or the iPod was squished somehow (Li-ion batteries don’t like to be squished).

  4. My suspicion is that they’re not concerned so much about planes going down, but rather these batteries have caused damage to other items in the mail.

  5. You may recall a few years ago there were several highly publicized incidents of laptop batteries exploding. So this is not as farfetched as you may think.

    Also, some types of non-recharagble lithium batteries (like the AA’s you can buy for cameras) are made with lithium metal, which can be highly reactive. Those batteries can burn extremely hot, and in large enough quantities are properly considered hazardous material.

    While on the topic, you know what else is hazmat? Strike-anywhere matches (as opposed to safety matches). The “any surface” can include other matches in the box, and strike-anywhere matches are prohibited on airplanes.

  6. There have been restrictions on loose li-ion batteries for passenger flights going back at least as far as 2007. You were allowed to carry two spares in your carry-on luggage and were not allowed to pack loose batteries in checked baggage. Batteries installed in devices have never been restricted.

    Keep in mind that this ban is for shipping batteries in bulk, a condition which makes a potential short out and runaway thermal reaction much more likely than having a spare cell battery in your handbag. And yes, a reactive thermal event in a plane full of li-ion batteries would be a Very Bad Thing. This strikes me as a fairly sensible precaution, much like limiting smoking around tankers carrying flammable compounds.

  7. Why only overseas? 5 hours on a plane between NYC and LA is okay, but not the 8 hours between NYC and Paris?

  8. Lithium battery producers will be thrilled about this new legislation. How are they supposed to ship their wares overseas?

  9. Two crashes so far:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-21/battery-fire-crashes-seen-every-other-year.html

    The concern is with fully charged, improperly packed Li-ion batteries. They can get into a thermal runaway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_runaway#Batteries

    So yes, it’s a concern, it has historical and scientific backing, it’s killed people, brought down airplanes, and seems to be legitimate. Also, the ban is temporary with a new, permanent policy in place by next year.

    So at least in this case it seems to be a fairly well thought out response to a demonstrated threat.

  10. Very interesting and a coincidence I am just reading this. Most recently I had a senior moment and left my black carrying case containing my 2 camcorders and camera back in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur. Fortunately the housekeeping staff found it and held it for me until I provided them with a shipping address. But before shipping them to me, the hotel informed me that their currier services needed to remove the batteries before shipping them. I was a bit peeved about that but the owner of a battery store here in the states informed me that a 747 was brought down by an exploding lithium battery. I thought that was strange considering that I don’t remember hearing of anything like that happening. Certainly a 747 crashing would be newsworthy enough where the whole world would hear about it. I have no idea where people get these stories. Probably the same place where people get stories of child abductions and satanic rituals.

  11. The batteries do a lot less harm than the Postal Service does. A little competition couldn’t hurt.

  12. Well, yes, at least with regard to child abductions. http://gigaom.com/cleantech/lithium-ion-batteries-faulted-for-jet-crash/

  13. And the problem is not just on airplanes. There have been at least two fires on the ground in large li-ion shipments, one in a Fedex facility and one in an airport.

  14. The Postal Service *has* competition. There’s UPS, FedEx, and other, smaller companies. (FedEx, obnoxiously, outsources to the USPS half the time.)

  15. Until quite recently, lithium batteries actually WERE at high risk of explosion, and it took some pretty clever engineering to create a lithium battery big enough to power a laptop that wasn’t a bomb.

    So, actually NOT safety gone mad, at the time the regulation was passed, it was fairly sane.

  16. @ben: producers will ship large quantites of batteries by ship and truck

  17. @Ben … battery shipments can continue on cargo planes, and by ship.

    The ban is just for passenger flights.

  18. A plane was brought down in the middle east by lithium batteries about a year or so ago. However it was a cargo plane not a a passenger plane, so it barely made a blip on the news scene as only the pilots were killed. Only those of us living overseas and affected by new legislation even noticed. You can still carry on your laptop and other items with lithium batteries without a problem, you just can’t ship them through the mail.

    I currently live in Malawi (southeastern Africa) where my husband works for the US state department and we have been prohibited from shipping anything with lithium batteries though our diplomatic mail for over a year. It is a pain, but if we really needed a new iPad we could ship it internationally via DHL or Fed Ex who have their own international cargo planes but the price of doing so is pretty steep.

  19. Shannon, that is one plane of the thousands or millions that fly every day. If that legislation makes sense it stops something more common, like car crashes.

  20. The prohibition against lithium batteries being shipped through the USPS to APO addresses just went into effect last month. I just had a laptop shipped to Germany through the APO system last December. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of planes that fly every day with lithium batteries on board and no incidents. Boats or trucks which carry multiple items with lithium batteries also get to their destinations without blowing up. But there aren’t any prohibitions (yet) against bringing items with lithium batteries overseas on a container ship.

    The point is that worst first thinking is becoming more and more pervasive. A cargo plane was brought down by a lithium battery incident. Therefore we must not air ship items with them to overseas destinations. This is the same logic that is used for things like crib or high chair recalls. One child gets his finger pinched in his high chair and all of those high chairs are recalled because they are “unsafe” and “an injury hazard.” Never mind that millions of kids used those high chairs without any injuries.

  21. Actually, there was an episode of one of those ultimate survival realities where they taught how to start a fire using a lithium battery. My kids watched that, and the next day they went asking parents at the park for their mobile phones, guess what for…
    Can you believe I had to prevent adults from letting a 5 yo play with their expensive IPhones???
    Anyway, after failing that, they settled for catching all sorts of bugs for a yummy survival meal.
    I think I’m going to ban TV for the rest of the summer.

  22. Lithium battery fires are actually pretty common, and can be devastating. Lithium cannot be put out with the fire suppression systems in airplanes, so once they start, they don’t stop. A damaged lithium battery can explode rather than burn, and the fumes from a burning battery are extremely toxic.

    Pilots have been killed, and planes destroyed.

    Not being able to ship batteries ranks as an inconvenience rather than a crippling blow to life… The ban is on USPS because they often ship mail in passenger planes. The ban does not affect cargo plane shipping.

    The ban is temporary anyway until they figure out what to do.

    I’m far more concerned with the travesty that is TSA than I am with banning lithium batteries.

  23. I have to agree with this policy. I have had my cell phone battery go into thermal runaway and catch fire. Nobody got hurt, and I got the battery out of my phone so it wasn’t damaged.

    One of the reasons that flying in the US is so safe is because they don’t take chances. This regulation might seem absurd to you, and you may argue that chances of this happening are 1 in a million, but, there are over 9 million commercial flights per year in the US alone.

  24. This is just how the world is running these days. I don’t think the “…a new and shining case of Safety Madness, wherein the teensy chance of something going disastrously wrong creates an entire new and cumbersome way of doing things?” mentality is just for shipping batteries on a plane. It’s the mentality of how most people think these days. We’ve read about them here many times, we’ve seen it for our own eyes. Liability, paranoia, and ignorance all play a key role in this thinking. It only takes one time of something happening, or even the thought of it happening for someone to get paranoid of being killed or sued, then they make a stink about a new policies and laws that should be implemented to avoid those things. Then everyone else follows suit. Next thing you know, it’s now become the norm.

  25. @ Jim Collins: How many flights in history have you read or heard of that went down because of a faulty battery in a cellphone or laptop? In all the decades of Avionics, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any such tragedy. The biggest problem with creating new policies for these extremely rare (if ever) situations, is that it opens up for more new (IMO) useless policies to spring up. And eventually, it would make flying extremely inconvenient to most. ie. TSA.

  26. @EricS: A quick research shows 3 planes destroyed and a crew dead in the last 5 years. ISTR several diversions due to exploding iPhones. The other two planes were lucky as the fire started late in the flight. All were cargo planes so far; that’s why they’re not in the news.

    The ban is at the request of the pilots.

  27. The plane carrying the cargo of Lithium batteries and devices, among other things, from Dubai in 2010 was only only speculated that it went down due to a lithium battery fire in the cargo hold. It was never confirmed. Something else could have caused the initial fire, and the batteries added to it because it too caught fire. No one will ever know. But JUST IN CASE, since then they changed the procedure and requirements for shipping them. They are now considered in the category of ‘hazardous material’.

  28. I have to agree with the ban. It took a great deal of research to be able to make a lithium battery safe enough for everyday use. Earlier lithium batteries exploded when deeply discharged. In addition lithium is toxic and difficult to extinguish.

  29. @ Yan: Do you have those links? Other than the flight in Dubai, there was nothing else that comes up in Google about a plane being destroyed by a lithium battery. Any other flights that come up (and very little), commercial or cargo, the plane wasn’t destroyed and no one was hurt or killed. As well, there are far more flights (commercial even) that go down in which the plane IS destroyed and people killed, all due to mechanical issues. Something which is more common than a battery catching fire. Yet, people continue to fly. And you don’t see pilots banning flights. It’s the same mentality of people fall down stairs all the time (more than batteries catching fire), and they get hurt or even die, but we all still use stairs without even thinking twice about it. Same thing with cars, many parents don’t want their children walking to school or taking a bus, because they can get killed or kidnapped. But more children are hurt or killed, and more frequently in car collisions. Yet most parents, will not think twice about strapping their kids in the backseat and go on a trip, go shopping or visit grandma. Just like these parents, some pilots are no different. They get paranoid, one incident (no matter how remote) is enough for them to make a huge deal.

    Note also, the “ban” isn’t for shipping lithium batteries (whether by itself or in a device) period. It’s shipping them internationally. A retailer or shipper in the U.S. can still ship them normally withing the U.S. and it’s territories. And as far as I know, Canada does not have that ban.

  30. Jet – this is not for batteries shipped in bulk. It is for any retailer shipping electronics involving a lithium ion battery. Meaning Amazon, walmart and Best Buy can’t ship them to purchasers. Even though the territories are supposed to excluded, flights to Am. Samoa are considered international, so I couldn’t get a watch for my child shipped from any online retailer. Not a computer but a WATCH with a tiny lithium ion battery.

    The ban is largely idiotic. My child got her watch. The retailers won’t ship to us, but everyone here has relatives in the States who will. If we need banned electronics, we simply have them shipped to stateside relatives who then ship them to us. Now planes are LESS safe since the items containing batteries are not known and are hidden in regular flat-rate priority mail boxes. I imagine that Am. Samoa residents are not the only people who have thought of this so it is likely happening all over the world.

    However, this doesn’t seem to be a US issue this time. Reading the article, it seems that the US is required to do this in response to the international community in order to use their planes. That is why the ban is solely for international flights and not US flights. For once, it seems other countries are MORE cautious than us.

    I do have some cool photos of a gps that exploded in a car. Pretty much decimated the dashboard. I can see the problem. Banning the shipments just doesn’t change anything since where there is a will, there is a way.

  31. Thanks Yan, interesting list. Which actually doesn’t surprise me. But none of those incidences mention of the plane being destroyed in flight, killing people. The information I was looking for (other than the Dubais incident), if any other plane in history has gone down in flight killing people due to batteries catching on fire? And according to the PDF list, the answer would be no. As well, if you take all those incidences compared to the number of flights happening every year, it’s still a very small percentage. An amount most people would shrug their shoulders about. Which leads me back to my point, that it only takes one voice to make a complaint, to spread paranoia and everyone starts freaking out. And most don’t even fully understand what it is they are freaking out about. They just read that people are scared of this and that, and without researching or using common sense, they automatically become afraid too. That is the mentality of many people these days. Worse case thinking, and only for things that they are concerned for THEMSELVES. If it’s a danger to THEM, or an inconvenience to THEM, they make a big deal. Otherwise, it’s not even an issue.

  32. @Donna: I admit I skimmed the original article and didn’t see that the ban was expanded to batteries already installed in devices. I can definitely see how that would be a huge inconvenience for anyone living in an area where the only way to get electronics is to have them shipped.

    I still have to say, though, that on the face of it this doesn’t look like worst first thinking to me. After all, while yes, driving in a car is quite dangerous, the chances of any of us being in an accident each time we get in the car is still quite small, yet we strap in our children and (hopefully) ourselves, just in case. Most of the time you can probably smoke around a tanker truck with no resultant explosion, but regulations say not to on the off chance there is a leak. In fact, most of the time you can probably smoke a cigarette while filling your auto with fuel, but we know that gasoline is explosive and so we don’t take the risk. This seems like a very similar situation to me, though considerably more of an inconvenience than any of those for some people.

  33. http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=20110728-0

    Cargo plane carrying a half-ton of lithium batteries catches fire and crashes off Korea, two dead.

    http://news.aviation-safety.net/2012/05/04/iphone-battery-fire-on-board-aircraft-caused-by-improper-repairs/

    Cell phone catches fire on passenger plane, no injuries.

    http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ash/ash_programs/hazmat/aircarrier_info/media/Battery_incident_chart.pdf

    Numerous close calls, where a package is noticed to be on fire prior to being loaded.

    There are probably other cases where a cargo plane has caught fire and crashed, but because crashes tend to destroy the evidence needed to figure out what started the fire, there will never be more than a suspicion that lithium batteries were the cause.

  34. Am not surprised, this is one of those “just a matter of time” things till a passenger plane goes down. The media here seems to have around a flight a month reported having to be diverted due to a battery going on fire in flight in New Zealand and Australia., Understand it has something to do with the fact that international flights go higher, which means higher cabin pressures and increased oxygen in the air as a result.

  35. I disagree, Jet. There is a huge difference in buckling a seat belt on the off chance you may get in a car wreck or moving a few feet to smoke on the off chance the tanker you are standing next to has a gas leak and preventing entire countries from getting electronics (in theory) on the off chance a battery may explode causing irreparable damage to a plane that does not allow for a diversion.

    Seat belts don’t impact people traveling. You are still able to go wherever you want to go and do whatever you want to do. Banning smoking near a tanker doesn’t prevent you from smoking. It simply means that you have to move to a slightly different location. All very minor inconveniences in your life and worth enduring to avoid the minimal possibility that something awful could occur. I’m not convinced that the very minimal risk from batteries justifies my child not being able to get a WATCH so that she can learn how to tell time on something not digital.

    Special packaging, storage, or whatever is akin to seat belts. Outright bans that make it impossible for hundreds of thousands of people to obtain electronics on the off chance that a battery may explode seems like worst-first thinking to me.

  36. We could not send lithium batteries through airmail in Australia since at least 2008 (I picked up the wrong phone leaving the apartment, realized when I landed in Sydney, then discovered I could not send it back to Brisbane – most mail in Australia is AirMail). I found a way around it (courier company), but it was still annoying trying to find a way to send the phone prior to my next flight!

  37. One needs point out if the batteries are SO dangerous where were your governments when they were being produced and distributed? There is an acceptable level of risk in everything you do ,if we were to hold automobiles and many other common products to equals standards then the world would come to a screeching halt. This like most other “safety” thinking is stupid as usual.

  38. Hi. I just discovered this site and am reading the archives voraciously. But I digress.

    The real problem is Lithium Polymer batteries. also known as LiPo batteries. I don’t know if the USPS makes that distinction, but LiPo batteries DO spontaneously catch fire and explode. And aircraft have been lost to them. Its such a problem that most LiPos now come from china by boat.

    If you don’t believe me, google “LiPo fire” and prepared to be impressed. They burn pretty impressively.

    In summary. Its a real threat. I don’t know if the USPS is being foolish by banning other Lithium based batteries, but LiPos have a real problem.

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