Exploding Cell Phones

Exploding Cell Phones a Growing Problem (AP)

Curtis Sathre said it was like a bomb going off. His 13-year-old son Michael stood stunned, ears ringing, hand gushing blood after his cell phone exploded. Safety officials have received 83 reports of cell phones exploding or catching fire in the past two years, usually because of bad batteries or chargers. Burns to the face, neck, leg and hip are among the dozens of injury reports the Consumer Product Safety Commission has received. The agency is providing tips for cell phone users to avoid such accidents and has stepped up oversight of the wireless industry. There have been three voluntary battery recalls, and the CPSC is working with companies to create better battery standards. “CPSC is receiving more and more reports of incidents involving cell phones, and we’re very concerned of the potential for more serious injuries or more fires,” said agency spokesman Scott Wolfson.

U.S. phone makers and carriers say most fires and explosions are caused by counterfeit batteries and note that in a country with some 170 million cell phone users, the number of accidents is extremely low. “Is it a problem? It has turned up, you bet. But statistically it is extraordinarily rare,” said John Walls, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. “But the fact that it has happened certainly has the industry’s attention.”

Some consumer advocates say the cause goes beyond bad batteries making their way to the market. They point to the increasing pressure on battery and phone makers to fit more capabilities into small instruments. “If you’re cramming more and more power in a small space, what you’re making is a small bomb,” said Carl Hilliard, president of the California-based Wireless Consumers Alliance, which has been tracking incidents of cell phone fires and explosions.

If there have only been dozens of reports, I’m certainly skeptical of this one. Presumably, some portion of the reports are either false or based on misuse of the equipment (think “Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor”). I’m guessing that the chances of getting injured from an exploding cell phone are roughly equivalent to scalding one’s legs with McDonald’s coffee and certainly lower than getting into an automobile accident while yapping on a non-exploding cell phone.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I do know, James, that I’m seeing repeated firmware issues popping up, and wonder if this isn’t part of the issue. since the firmware also controls the charge cycles…. Hmmm.

    I’m rather skeptical of the claim of added functions causing explosions; Granted, that the phone needs more power to run some features, but not all THAT much, the number of features being added is roughly offset, I should think, by the lower power requirment for the chips needed to run things.

    As for the claim of replacement batteries causing the issue, let me put this in a way the non-technical will understand; The context of THAT statement can be found on any stable floor, in lesser amounts.

    I’ve had several cell phones over the last ten years or so, and at no time have I ever needed to buy a new battery, with the exception of the Nextel Phone I had at one time, and that they replaced at no charge. The others gave me over 2 years of service each… in one case, three years.. and showed no signs of stopiing as of the time I retired the phone itself; usually for contractual reasons. (I got a newer phone, free, for signing on.) Anicdotal, certainly, but I am no cell-phone guru; just Joe Average, so I can’t imagine I’m getting anything special, here. and I’m hardly a light user; the thing is on 24*7. I imagine I’m glowing in the dark, these days.

    So why would we be needing to replace these batteries so frequently that outsourced batteries would be an issue? (confused shrug) I suspect this is simply a matter of the telcos not wanting to lose the markup of the branded batteries.

  2. Finally, this is a topic that I know a little bit about. The problem lies with Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) Batteries. These batteries have a much higher energy density than NiCad or NiMH batteries and thus can give phones longer talk times and standby times while being smaller and lighter than Nicad’s or NiMh. The problem is that they are more susceptible to damage either by overcharging or by being drained to low. After the Li-Ion cell is damaged then some of the internal connections short-out and a thermal run away condition can occur. When the temp gets high enough, the lithium will then ignite and will burn very quickly and in a spectacular fashion.

    That being said, most of the reports of battery fires in the US have been determined to be hoaxes, much like the needles in the Pepsi cans a few years ago. The few confirmed fires were indeed caused by defective counterfeit batteries than were in the process of being charged. Most Li-Ion fires occur in the model Airplane/car areas were these batteries are being subjected to much harsher conditions than what would be expected from a phone/laptop device.

    Just My two Cents.

  3. R Gardner says:

    I happen to know a bit about this too, and agree with Russell Hamilton above. However, the big problem with implementing newest 3G celluar systems (aside from the technology wars – CDMA2000, WCDMA, TS-CDMA, 3GSM, GPRS,……) is that in the data mode, the energy demands are either more than the battery can handle, or produce more waste heat than the circuits boards can dissipate, particularly if they are multi-chip solutions (vice one chip that does all).

    Regardless, I’ve have several electric devices ruined due to leaking AA-batteries. Do we really expect cell phones to be any different?

    But blow up? That implies a Hydrogen explosion, and there just isn’t enough juice in one of these batteries to do what is claimed. (yes, I’m leaving out the possibility of a Lithium boom, because the chemistry doesn’t support it either)

  4. David C says:

    I’m a total non-expert, but I remember reading somewhere that the most common true “exploding cell phone” stories tend to happen overseas, and involve third-world jury-rigging of various sorts; getting a phone to “work” with the wrong kind of battery, that sort of thing.

  5. Jan-Luc Ifer says:

    It’s all true, the devil has taken over your cell phones and made them blow, watch out sinners ’cause your next.