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International airline risks with lithium battery transport


Shipping a hot commodity
The tragic airline incidents this year have evoked a sense of helplessness and frustration as we humbly face limits of surveillance technology and human oversight. One shortcoming less covered by the media is the high risk of transporting bulk lithium ion batteries on passenger planes. These products are highly flammable under certain circumstances and have caused multiple jet fires and crashes. In the last 23 years, at least 146 U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) incidents have been linked to lithium batteries resulting in smoke, fire, extreme heat, or explosion. Furthermore, Canadian inspectors discovered that 78% of companies were not properly declaring the shipment of lithium batteries by air. Additional risks are introduced by counterfeit batteries that are not properly tested for quality and safety.

Lithium batteries are not created equal
It is important to recognize the differences between lithium batteries that affect transportation risks. Primary lithium batteries are made of lithium and other metals and are considered disposable. Film cameras and military combat operations tend to rely on primary lithium batteries according to Battery University. Primary lithium batteries cannot be extinguished with firefighting agents as they contain lithium metal that reacts with water to produce explosive hydrogen gas. Fires created by these batteries require special substances such as a Lith-X Class D agent that forms a crust over the metal.

Lithium ion batteries are rechargeable and do not contain lithium in metal form. A thin plastic film separates highly-pressured, reactive elements. These products have become the most popular type of rechargeable battery and are used for laptops, electric cars, power tools, e-cigarettes, and many other consumer products. Their flammability is frequently due to overheating and overcharging, and they can be extinguished with water. Yet simple ignition can lead to a large-scale problem as fire easily spreads between multiple batteries stored in close proximity. A “thermal runaway” effect occurs that results in rapid melting, smoke, and fire hazards. Punctures or drops of a product can increase faults in the battery and subsequent flammability. An overview of the dangers of airline transport of lithium batteries is posted on YouTube by the UK Civil Aviation Authority.

Turbulent times
Since 2008, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has prohibited loose lithium batteries in our checked luggage. Yet a massive number of batteries are transported for consumer, industrial, and automotive industries. Although the FAA has prohibited primary lithium batteries and restricted lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger planes, loopholes allow shipments packaged in smaller, separate containers. International cargo planes face slightly different restrictions through the International Air Transport Association (IATA). It is not clear how thoroughly these restrictions are enforced across the globe.

Major incidents have been affiliated with lithium batteries primarily outside of the United States. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared March 8, 2014 carrying 221 kg of lithium ion batteries. This case has not been resolved, and 2,000 kg of cargo was not clearly identified. In 2013, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787-8 experienced a ground fire in London when lithium-manganese dioxide batteries caught fire in the emergency locator transmitters. In 2010, a UPS Boeing 747 cargo plane crashed near Dubai as a result of a lithium ion battery fire. Several previous incidents were noted by journalist Matt Thurber in AINonline.

Shall we stay seated?
Many restrictions on the transport of lithium batteries have been updated by the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. These requirements promise increased safety, yet gaps remain involving international travel, quality testing, and cargo fireproofing. Fireproof cargo containers and emergency equipment are now being used by UPS, but it is not clear how other planes might be at risk.

New passenger planes such as the Boeing 777 have dramatically increased room for freight, though passengers are unaware of their packaged sidekicks. In a more connected world, perhaps we will have better information about hazardous materials in our airplane cabins and belly cargo. Why shouldn’t we know that we are watching our inflight movie directly above several hundred small boxes of lithium ion batteries? On a more personal health note, wouldn’t an allergic person benefit from knowing that someone brought peanuts on the plane? More importantly, shouldn’t we be able to choose a flight based on what it may (or may not be) transporting? Even with increased regulations and decreased risks to public health, access to information about potential hazards in our immediate environment is an individual right that needs to take flight.

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