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The government must act to address the dangers posed by lithium ion batteries

E-scooters (Credit: Paul Lawrenson / Alamy Stock Photo)

3 min read

“Why do e-scooters and e-bikes keep exploding?” Asked a recent newspaper headline. And with good reason.

In New York, last month, four people died in a fire in an e-bike store. In the UK, fires caused by lithium ion batteries in e-scooters and e-bikes have quadrupled since 2020 costing millions of pounds. Eight people have died and 190 people have been injured. With at least six such fires a day, urgent government action is needed to deal with this fast growing fire risk.

The increasing use of lithium-ion batteries is due to their ability to store and provide much more energy than other battery types, allowing for longer usage. This has led to a transport revolution, with many people using e-bikes and e-scooters as a greener and more economical form of transportation. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in a frightening increase in particularly dangerous fires.

If overheated – through damage, flawed design, or the use of substandard chargers – lithium-ion batteries can create fierce fires that are not only difficult to extinguish but also release toxic gas. These fires can occur when just one cell of the battery overheats, creating a domino effect or "thermal runaway", with a fire developing within seconds that can reach a temperature exceeding 600 degrees Celsius.

In the UK, fires caused by lithium ion batteries in e-scooters and e-bikes have quadrupled since 2020 costing millions of pounds

Various organisations have highlighted this growing problem, including Fire Brigades, insurance companies and the charity Electrical Safety First (ESF).

Research by ESF found nearly 60 listings of highly dangerous mains chargers for e-bike batteries available on popular online marketplaces such as Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Wish.com, and AliExpress. Some of these chargers lacked even the basic safety function of a fuse, posing a serious risk of fire in the event of a fault in the supply lead.

Lesley Rudd, chief executive of ESF, has noted that a lack of regulation for online marketplaces significantly contributes to the availability of such dangerous products. She and others believe tighter regulation is urgently needed, together with steps to increase consumer awareness of the dangers of lithium-ion batteries and of safe ways to charge them.

Zurich Insurance, seeing large claims resulting from these battery blazes, share these views. They believe the government has an important role to play in ensuring that consumers are aware of the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries and the importance of purchasing accessories from reputable companies.

But many other products use lithium-ion batteries – not least “vapes”. And, when finished with, they are just thrown out with other waste. The number of fires – and toxic fumes -  caused by them in refuse vehicles and at landfill sites is growing; sometimes caused by faulty batteries and sometimes when they are crushed in the compacting process. It’s estimated there are over 200 such landfill site fires every year, 48 per cent of the total, costing £158m a year and significantly adding to pollution levels.

So alongside increased regulation around product safety and sale of lithium-ion batteries and measures to increase awareness of the dangers, a disposal strategy is needed.

Lithium-ion batteries are playing a growing and important role, not least in helping drive forward the transition to greener travel. But as their role increases, consumer safety must be given greater consideration. An imminent report by Electrical Safety First will offer expert-developed solutions. I hope it will be listened to.

It is clear that government and the industry must act swiftly to implement measures to safeguard the public before further tragedies occur.

By Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Foster of Bath

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