The Serious Dangers of Mishandling Lithium Ion Batteries

Lithium ion batteries have become an indispensable power source for a wide variety of devices and equipment. From laptops and cell phones to e-cigarettes and even electric vehicles, lithium ion batteries allow us to take our power sources on the go. However, these batteries also carry significant risks if they are not handled and used properly. Being careful and educated about lithium ion battery safety is crucial.

Lithium ion batteries are high energy density batteries, which means they are able to store a lot of energy in a small space. However, this also means they carry more safety risks compared to other battery types if they are damaged, defective, or improperly used. There are four main reasons why extra precautions need to be taken with lithium ion batteries: risk of fire and explosion, toxicity concerns, the need for proper disposal, and the requirement to exercise caution when transporting them.

Risk of Fire and Explosion

Lithium ion batteries can pose serious fire and explosion hazards if they are overcharged, short-circuited, damaged, exposed to high temperatures, or experience a manufacturing defect. The flammable electrolyte inside the battery as well as the electrode materials can serve as fuel for fires and explosions under certain conditions.

Overcharging a lithium ion battery causes lithium ions to build up on the cathode, generating a lot of heat. If the internal battery temperature reaches a critical point due to overcharging, the electrolyte can ignite and trigger thermal runaway. During thermal runaway, the increased temperature causes more reactions between the electrodes and electrolyte, leading to more heating and ultimately cell rupture or explosion.

Physical damage to lithium ion batteries, such as from crushing, piercing, or striking, can create internal short circuits. This can quickly lead to dangerous levels of heat generation. Swelling and fire can occur rapidly in damaged batteries.

High temperatures, whether from the environment or from charging too quickly, can start chemical reactions leading to fire. Leaving lithium ion batteries in hot cars is particularly dangerous.

Manufacturing defects can lead to tiny metal particles contaminating the electrolyte or electrodes being incorrectly aligned, which can ignite during charging. Use of counterfeit or low quality batteries vastly increases the chances of these defects.

Lithium ion battery fires release toxic and corrosive vapors, and can lead to extensive property damage, injury, or even death in extreme cases.

Toxicity Concerns

The electrolyte in lithium ion batteries is flammable and toxic. It commonly contains lithium salts such as lithium hexafluorophosphate or lithium perchlorate, which can be hazardous to people if exposure occurs. Inhaling the vapors causes chemical respiratory burns. The metals inside the electrodes are also toxic.

If a lithium ion battery leaks, extreme caution must be used in handling it to avoid chemical burns. Skin or eye contact with the electrolyte could cause severe injury. If eye exposure happens, flushing with water for 15 minutes is critical. Seek immediate medical attention after any exposure.

When lithium ion batteries burn, they release toxic gases into the environment. Hydrogen fluoride gas and other hydrofluoric acid derivatives are common. Inhalation of lithium ion battery fire fumes can cause severe lung irritation and damage.

Proper protective gear, such as sealed chemical gloves and face masks, must be worn when handling leaking or burning lithium ion batteries to prevent contact or inhalation of toxic materials. Even with protective equipment, exposure should be minimized.

Proper Disposal Is Critical

Discarded lithium ion batteries require special handling at designated collection points to prevent environmental contamination or safety issues. They contain toxic materials, so letting them end up in landfills can put garbage collectors at risk and allow hazardous chemicals to leach out.

Many communities have battery recycling drop-off points at waste collection centers or environmental agencies. Lithium ion batteries should never be put in the regular trash. The rechargeable battery recycling corporation Call2Recycle has a search tool on their website to help find convenient recycling locations.

Before bringing lithium ion batteries in for recycling, they should be safely stored and transported. Taping the terminals can prevent accidental short circuits during storage and transport. Storing in sealed heavy duty plastic bags also helps contain any leaks.

If a lithium ion battery catches fire, do not throw water on it, which can make the fire worse. Have a plan to smother the fire with salt, sand, or a Class D fire extinguisher instead. Once the fire is out, the remains must be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Exercise Caution When Transporting

The U.S. Department of Transportation and most international agencies heavily regulate the transport of lithium ion batteries as hazardous materials. There are quantity limits, packaging requirements, and shipping restrictions that must be adhered to.

Air travelers must take extra precautions with devices containing lithium ion batteries. Spare lithium ion batteries can never be packed in checked bags and may be prohibited from carry-on luggage depending on quantity and size. Devices must

be protected from damage and switched completely off when checked. Carry-on devices should not be stored in cramped overhead bins where they may be crushed.

When mailing items with lithium ion batteries installed or included as spares, the packages must be marked and labeled as containing lithium batteries. Detailed shipping documents with emergency contact numbers must accompany the package. Quantity limitations also apply when shipping lithium ion batteries through courier services or mail.

Following all transport rules and packaging items with internal or spare lithium ion batteries very carefully ensures safe passage. Damaged batteries can overheat and provide fuel for fires aboard planes or other transport vehicles with potentially catastrophic consequences.


Lithium ion batteries allow us to enjoy powerful, lightweight, rechargeable power sources in many devices we use daily. However, they present unique risks compared to other battery types if misused or mishandled. Taking the proper safety precautions by avoiding damage, exercising caution when transporting, handling with care, and disposing of them responsibly is critical for managing the fire, explosion, and toxicity hazards. Staying informed and vigilant about lithium ion battery safety provides protection for both people and property.

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