Apple Tries to Downplay iPod Fire Incidents

It seems Apple is on a roller coaster ride this week, going from bad news to good news, back to bad news again. A local television station from Seattle, US, forced the Consumer Product Safety Commission via the Freedom Of Information Act to hand over an 800-page report about fire hazards posed by Apple’s iPod music players. Experts on consumer safety agree that it’s time Apple makes public statements about the fire hazards posed by iPods.

KIRO 7 Consumer Investigator Amy Clancy worked for 7 months to try and get her hands on the 800-page report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. She used the Freedom Of Information Act, but Apple’s lawyers kept on filing exemption after exemption, apparently trying to prevent the report from going public. The report shows in great detail several incident where iPods burst into flames and smoke, at times burning owners.

The cases themselves aren’t the ones where owners put iPods in ovens or left them in cars. They range from people going on a run with an iPod shuffle around their necks getting burnt, to people whose iPod triggered the smoke alarms in their house. Some of the iPods were charging, some of them weren’t; some of the iPods were older models, some new. The problems aren’t limited to the United States – in Japan, the government issued a warning about overheating and sparking iPod Nanos.

One of the young victims’ mother, Tami Mooney, contacted Apple about the burn marks her daughter had gotten after picking up her iPod, but Apple told her it was an isolated incident. She also asked for information on possible other cases, but Apple told her that she “wouldn’t be able to have access to it.”

“I was so frustrated because frankly, they didn’t care. They didn’t care that my child was burned. They didn’t care about the possibilities that other children were burned,” Mooney told Clancy, “I asked them, has this been happening? Is this new? And they said, we haven’t heard of this one yet.” The federal records now show that Apple was already fully aware of the problems by then.

KIRO 7 talked to Gordon Damant, a fire scientist and 30-year California state regulator, and he believes the source of the problems is probably the lithium-ion batteries in iPods. This is a totally reasonable assumption, as computer manufacturers from all walks of life have experienced massive recalls of lithium-ion batteries due to overheating and fire issues.

Despite all this, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is not issuing a recall of iPods in the same way laptop batteries were massively recalled not too long ago. The Commission claims that since 175 million iPods have been sold, “the number of incidents is extremely small in relation to the number of products produced, making the risk of injury very low”. While this is a sound statistical reasoning, I’m sure you’d feel differently if you were a victim yourself.

Damant disagrees with CPSC’s assessment. “When is enough, enough?” he said, “Looking at [the report], it would clearly seem to me that the potential is there for them to do something because, in the past, they’ve negotiated recalls with very much less information than [this report].” Several other consumer safety experts agree that the public should at least be made aware of the problems.

The CPSC is still on this case, and has ordered Apple to provide any possible future information about these problems, so that the Commission can “assess any new information concerning this product to determine if action should be taken to protect the public”.

Additionally, the CPSC states that one of the reasons they’re not undertaking action right now is because the current generation of iPod uses a bettery which “has not been shown to have similar problems” – Apple, however, refused to comment on when these “current generation” batteries started being used. The KRIO 7 article then details a case of a lawsuit in Cincinnati where an iPod Touch exploded and caught fire in someone’s pocket. It is claimed the victim suffered 2nd degree burns, and that the iPod was turned off. This iPod Touch was “current generation” at the time of the CPSC report.

With the iPod now being such a successful device, cases like this will end up under a microscope, just like the cases of batteries catching fire in Nokia telephones – and those turned out to be after-market, non-Nokia approved batteries. I don’t think Apple (or any manufacturer for that matter) can really prevent cases like this, but Apple’s attempts to prevent the report from going public are of course despicable and an indication that something is indeed going on.


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