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As Batteries Keep Catching Fire, U.S. Safety Agency Prepares For Change

Product safety field staff send damaged products, such as this burnt battery pack from a defective electric scooter, to the government testing lab in Rockville, Md.

Picture this: You're at a park, on a walk, with a baby. A friendly middle-aged man approaches you and tells you your stroller could be really dangerous.

You might think, this man is crazy. But maybe not if you knew he's the nation's product safety chief.

"I couldn't live with myself if I walked away and it turned out that that child was harmed when I could've just said something," Elliot Kaye says. His voice is soft-spoken and his worldview seems to fluctuate between pride in saving lives and the unease of someone who's seen many things go wrong in unexpected ways. "You can't help it; you just automatically see the hazards."

Kaye is the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It's an agency that indeed typically gets the spotlight when things do go wrong — when furniture topples over toddlers, when window blinds strangle children, or, more recently, when smartphones explode.

And to many, the CPSC is the recall agency. But considering how tiny it is, its mission is vast. With the exception of cars, food, medications and a few other things, for thousands of products we buy and assume someone's made sure are safe — cribs, lawn mowers, toasters, power tools, washing machines, office chairs — that someone is the CPSC.

A major category under CPSC's scrutiny is electronics. And increasingly in recent years, there's been the matter of batteries. They've overheated or caught fire in laptops, baby monitors, flashlights, and of course, those electric "hoverboard" scooters and Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 phones.

Lithium-ion batteries are a known troublemaker — and a subject of numerous standards and international regulations. But the incidents keep cropping up.

"This is the way standards normally work," Kaye says. "They identify a problem that is probably not a problem that needs to be solved in the future, and they're really good at making sure that thing never happens again, but then new problems have developed."

In October, Kaye introduced a new initiative to help the agency get a broader understanding of the battery industry and how to prevent rather than resolve hazards.

But then came the election and its unexpected result. Under President Donald Trump in 2017, Kaye is expected to step down as chairman to become a commissioner. "My hope is now with the election and potential leadership change here, that that work is not scuttled," Kaye says.

Competitive pressures

Leaning into an open plastic container, you can smell that unmistakable metallic odor of old batteries. The counters of the lab space are lined with large and medium-sized bins like rows of evidence boxes. Inside are electric hoverboard scooters and their battery packs, in varied stages of burn damage.

Doug Lee is holding out one exhibit. This battery pack burned up — scattering into scorched empty cylinders, like rusted shell casings. "Typically, they just all go one by one," he says. "One goes into thermal runaway and that sets off the others."

Lee is an electrical engineer and the battery guru at the CPSC testing lab, called the National Product Testing and Evaluation Center.

This is where police, fire, customs and other officials often send in troublesome products — sometimes hand-delivered in a cross-country relay. After a massive recall, hoverboards and their packaging are everywhere in the workshop.

This lab is also where government engineers are still testing some Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones. Lee and other CPSC officials declined to share any details of that investigation because it's ongoing.

CPSC officials say they have concluded the review of the original batch of Note 7s, accepting Samsung's explanation that the rounded-corner design of the battery triggered problems. Faults in connections between positively and negatively charged electrodes can result in short-circuits.

But government engineers are still investigating what caused fires in the Note 7s that were issued later as replacements, after Samsung said it switched battery suppliers. Samsung says its own investigation is ongoing. The company hasn't disclosed what went wrong beyond originally citing a small manufacturing problem.

"We all want batteries that are smaller, that are more powerful, that discharge more slowly and charge more quickly," Kaye says. "And I think that that might be pushing up against design limitations and certainly tightness of manufacturing restrictions of trying to get it right.

"You could have a great standard and you can have a great system in place," he adds, "but if there are competitive pressures that push manufacturers ... to their limits — which I think we may or may not have seen in the most recent instance — then those things go out the window."

"Only trying to protect people"

The CPSC oversees the safety of some 15,000 product categories. It has a staff of 567. Fewer than 10 people work on its Internet surveillance team, tasked with ensuring that recalled products aren't sold online. The agency's budget is $125 million.

For comparison, the Food and Drug Administration has a budget of almost $5 billion, and its 2016 increase alone exceeded the entire CPSC budget for the year.

The CPSC is different: It does not approve products before they go to market, like the FDA. Its strongest power is the law that requires all companies to report known hazards in their products to the CPSC immediately.

Except for children's products, which do go through regular testing required by the CPSC, the agency relies heavily on companies to comply with voluntary standards. To set new rules, the CPSC has to prove that the voluntary standards aren't working.

"Most people think it's a good system," says Hal Stratton, who chaired the CPSC under President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2006. He's a free-market kind of guy. "When you think about the whole big picture, the market is pretty safe," Stratton says.

To an extent, Kaye seems to agree: "What I've found is that most of the people want to do the right thing most of the time," he says. "They just haven't been asked."

Or sometimes, they're clueless. "I've talked to entrepreneurs," Kaye says, "who say to me, 'I never would have thought of that. We're so busy raising money, trying to get it to work, filing our patents, getting to market, finding a manufacturer, finding a supplier — we never thought about consumer safety.' "

All five members of the bipartisan commission voted to approve Kaye's new battery initiative, including the Republicans who might succeed Kaye in the chairman's seat. The directive to staff is very broad: to work closely with other agencies and companies, to figure out what may be missing — gaps in standards, international cooperation, enforcement, something else.

"Is it that the right companies just are making mistakes, or is it all black-market counterfeits that are causing most of these problems? We just don't know," Kaye says.

For consumer advocates, the main criticism and worry is that like many government bureaucracies, the CPSC moves slowly. For Kaye, the concern is that the new leadership will come with a much more hands-off philosophy or that the new Congress will tighten the agency's budget.

"If we were building defense systems, I'm sure that we'd be funded at a factor of 10," he says, then adds, without change of tone: "We're only trying to protect people and save their lives. That doesn't get you big budgets."

Stratton counters that when he was chairman, "nobody told me what to do, nobody tried to restrict my budget." He says, "We had all the money we could spend," and adds: "It depends on what you want to do."

When Stratton left the CPSC in 2006, the agency's budget was $67 million.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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