ST. LOUIS – There are new concerns that St. Louis area residents may be sparking fires without even knowing it. The issues lie in the rechargeable devices used, from Roomba vacuums to cordless drills and e-scooters.
It’s become a top concern for firefighters when they head to emergency calls: lithium-ion battery fires. Firefighters suspect batteries may have sparked last week’s fire at a Lemay recycling center.
Business there continued. Firefighters said the center has a state-of-the-art fire suppression system and safety protocols. No one was hurt. Damage was limited.
Still, it seems nearly certain to happen again, not because of negligence from consumers, who are prone to improper charging or battery disposal.
Think of what happens to your garbage in a garbage truck: it gets crushed and compacted. That’s extremely problematic when it comes to rechargeable devices.
“These batteries are crushing each other inappropriately,” said Lt. Jason Brice of the Lemay Fire Protection District. “The housing is broken. These batteries are able to produce their own heat, fuel, and oxygen. In the last five years, we’ve had nine working fires (at the recycling center), suspected to be from lithium-ion batteries from household products and appliances.”
The phenomenon is called “thermal runaway.” Authorities said in March that it fueled a massive fire in the Bronx, New York. A battery from an electric scooter was what started it.
Such fires also take an enormous amount of water to fight. For instance, 4,500 gallons were needed to put out a recent electric car fire. A standard car would require hundreds, not thousands, of gallons.
Also, the fumes and water runoff can contain hydrofluoric acid, which causes burns and even death. Brice said that led to a shortage of a medication called calcium gluconate, which is used to treat such burns.
“We just started carrying this last week. It’s in high demand across the United States,” he said. “Every EMS, medical service, hospital… everybody’s trying to get it.”
Firefighters nationwide are holding a safety stand-down week beginning June 18 to train for lithium-ion battery dangers, which seem so preventable.
Brice offered these tips: Never recharge your devices on a bed, chair, couch, or clothing. Never charge them when you’re sleeping or away from home. Remember, retailers often offer free battery recycling.