Jan. 30, 2004 -- The federal government has launched an investigation into cell phone batteries that can overheat or even explode, potentially injuring phone users.
Good Morning America reported Jan. 23 that the phone manufacturer Kyocera was voluntarily recalling batteries for one of its phones, the first-ever recall of cell phone batteries. About 140,000 batteries custom made for the Kyocera 7135 Smartphone were recalled.
Though unrelated, the Kyocera recall came amid an investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission into cell phone batteries in phones made by various manufacturers.
"We have an ongoing investigation regarding certain cell phone batteries that may rupture or may overheat and cause injury to consumers,"said Hal Stratton, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "One of the other things we're concerned about is counterfeit batteries."
The recall and presumed danger involve the cell phone batteries, not the phones themselves. Many phone companies do not make the phones, nor the batteries that bear their names. Cell phone maker Nokia blames improper replacement batteries or cheap knockoff counterfeits for causing at least 30 to 40 of its phones to overheat.
Robert Clifford, a 17-year-old from Davie, Fla., knows the dangers of cell phone batteries firsthand. Last month, as he arrived for class and took out his Sprint cell phone to call his girlfriend, he got a nasty surprise.
"I went to pull the phone out of my pocket and I went to put it up to my ear and it burned me," Clifford said. He was treated by a doctor for second-degree burns.
After the phone overheated and cooled off, the battery swelled up, and no longer fit well inside the cell phone, Clifford said. Good Morning America examined the phone and found that the battery could not be placed into it as intended. "I just thought it was a freak accident because I had never heard of anything happening like that before," Clifford said. "Ever."
The teen says the blister he suffered on his ear was painful, especially when he turned on it while trying to sleep. He did not suffer hearing loss, but his mother says the outside of his ear hasn't completely healed, a month after the incident.
Clifford had a reconditioned Sprint phone. The company said in a statement that the millions of phones it sells — new and reconditioned — are thoroughly tested and they "rarely, if ever, hear of cases involving 'overheated' phones or that their batteries caused physical harm."
Clifford isn't alone. A Malaysian man was shaken and scalded last Tuesday after his mobile phone exploded beside him while he was sleeping.
Mohamed Radzuan, a 40-year-old electrician, said he was scalded on his buttocks, and that there were burn marks on the mattress and the wall. He didn't know how it happened until he saw his shattered cell phone. He had purchased a new battery for the phone a week ago.
Not Isolated Incident
The U.S. government is starting to hear more about these kinds of incidents. Arthur Lee, the CPSC safety engineer spearheading the investigation, is looking at the possibility that counterfeit batteries may be responsible, and also the possibility that people used replacement batteries that were not suitable for the phone they had.
"Those [counterfeit] batteries may not contain the smart circuitry to prevent the batteries from overheating," Lee said.
The CPSC chairman says the investigation is open-ended, and not tied to any particular brand of cell phone. It is not related to the Kyocera recall. Kyocera says there have been four reported incidents of overheating with its 7135 Smartphone, and one very minor injury. Kyocera says this injury was caused by the battery venting while a man carried it in his pocket. Kyocera claims the venting worked as designed, to prevent more serious overheating.
Kyocera blames the battery manufacturer. Kyocera says a manufacturing caused defect rough edges inside the battery cell, creating an internal short and a lot of heat. The batteries being recalled have a code number that ends with a dash, then the numbers "05."
But Kyocera points out the chance of anyone's cell phone overheating or exploding is minuscule. There are only several dozen reported cases from all companies combined, and there are hundreds of millions of cell phones in the world.
But for Clifford, it's not easy to forget what happened.
"Every time I go to answer the phone I think about it," he said.
The experts say you should not keep a cell phone in your pocket or any area where it can contact coins or keys. If those objects touch the battery terminals of the cell phone, that can create a short and drain the battery, or worse.
To learn more about the recall, go to http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml04/04068.html.