NEW YORK — The explosion early on a June morning ignited a blaze that engulfed a New York City shop filled with motorized bicycles and their volatile lithium-ion batteries. Billowing smoke quickly killed four people asleep in apartments above the burning store.
As the ubiquity of e-bikes has grown, so has the frequency of fires and deaths blamed on the batteries that power them, prompting a campaign to establish regulations on how the batteries are manufactured, sold, reconditioned, charged and stored.
Advocacy for Mandatory Safety Standards
Consumer advocates and fire departments, particularly in New York City, are urging the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to establish mandatory safety standards and confiscate noncompliant imports when they arrive at the border or shipping ports, so that unsafe e-bikes and poorly manufactured batteries don’t reach streets and endanger homes.
During a forum focused on e-bikes and lithium-ion batteries held Thursday in Bethesda, Maryland, the commission’s chair, Alexander D. Hoehn-Saric, said it was an “urgent moment” that requires attention.
“Voluntary standards are not enough,” he said, siding with fire officials and other safety advocates who expressed broad support for mandatory standards for batteries and electrical systems in micromobility devices that include battery-powered scooters, bicycles and hoverboards.
‘They Explode’: The Unique Danger of Lithium-Ion Battery Fires
“These aren’t typical fires,” said New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh. “The batteries don’t smolder; they explode.”
“The number of fire incidents has rapidly increased. Other cities across the country have begun seeing these issues as well, and municipalities that are not yet experiencing this phenomenon may be facing similar incidents in the future,” Kavanagh told the commission. “We have reached a point of crisis in New York City, with ion batteries now a top cause of fatal fires in New York.”
With some 65,000 e-bikes zipping through its streets — more than any other place in the U.S. — New York City is the epicenter of battery-related fires. There have been 100 such blazes so far this year, resulting in 13 deaths, already more than double the six fatalities last year.
The National Scope of Battery-Related Fires and the Call for Congressional Action
Nationally, there were more than 200 battery-related fires reported to the commission — an obvious undercount — from 39 states over the past two years, including 19 deaths blamed on micromobility devices.
Hoehn-Saric called on Congress to strengthen the commission’s authority so it can “move rapidly toward establishing mandatory standards” that could reduce destructive and deadly fires caused by malfunctioning lithium-ion batteries. The task is being spearheaded by Democratic members in New York’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres.
Because mandatory standards don’t exist, Schumer said, poorly made batteries have flooded the U.S., increasing the risk of fires.
In many cases, authorities have been challenged to track the source of batteries manufactured overseas, many of them bought online or from aftermarket dealers.
Earlier this year, New York City urgently enacted a sweeping package of local laws intended to crack down on defective batteries, including a ban on the sale or rental of e-bikes and batteries that aren’t certified as meeting safety standards by an independent product testing lab.
The new rules also outlaw tampering with batteries or selling refurbished batteries made with lithium-ion cells scavenged from used units.