Risk of Cell Phone Explosions Growing

83 reports of cell phones exploding or catching fire

You can add explosions to the hazards associated with cell phones. Federal safety officials say they've received 83 reports of cell phones exploding or catching fire in the past two years. The industry blames counterfeit batteries but others aren't so sure.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has handled three recalls this year -- the Kyocera Smartphone, Kyocera Slider, K400 and 3200 Series and Verizon Wireless LG-brand cell phones.

Burns to the face, neck, leg and hip are among the dozens of injuries reported to the CPSC. The agency says it is working with companies to create better battery standards.

While counterfeit batteries are contributing to the problem, market pressure to make phones smaller and more feature-packed aren't helping matters. Industry spokesmen insist the risk is tiny and that off-brand batteries are to blame.

"Statistically it is extraordinarily rare," said John Walls, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. But the CPSC and consumer groups caution that with 170 million cell phones in use, the number of incidents is likely to increase.

"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 CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson.

• A California teen suffered second-degree burns when her Kyocera Wireless 2325 cell phone caught fire last July, according to local fire investigators. The 16-year-old Ontario girl's phone burst into "fist-size flames" without warning, fire investigators said.

• In October 2003, a Kyocera phone began sizzling and then exploded on a car seat. The phone was sitting on her daughter's lap as Tina McChristian was driving down an Omaha street. It began to sizzle, then exploded, propelling the battery into her granddaughter's car seat.

• In August 2003, a 33-year-old Dutch woman was injured when her Nokia phone exploded in her hands. On October 2, 2003, a supermarket employee in the Netherlands burned his legs when a Nokia phone exploded in his pants pocket.

• In California, Curtis Sathre, 13, picked up his Verizon LG cell phone to make a call when it exploded, leaving him stunned and bleeding, the Associated Press reported.

• Marcelino Gonzalez, 62, suffered second-degree burns when his Kyocera phone exploded in his hand as he turned it on to make a call. "If it was to my face it would have blown up in my face," Gonzalez, 62, said.

While the industry insists the problem is limited to counterfeit batteries and defective chargers, consumer advocates say that's by no means proven. They noted that some of the phones which exploded had been purchase a short time before the fires and the owners had never replaced the batteries or modified the phone in any way.

"Speculation abounds that coins or keys could cause shorting when they come into contact with the metal tags which are used to charge the batteries. Such a short, in theory, might cause the battery to overheat," notes the Wireless Consumers Alliance, a not-for-profit California organization.

"Still another conjecture is that the vents which allow heat from the battery may be obstructed causing overheating. Our guess is that the exploding cell phones are caused by defects in the battery or in the phone's power amplifier -- not because the battery is off brand -- but more investigation is required and caution is advised," the organization said in a statement on its Web site.

Cell phone batteries can reach temperatures of at least 600 degrees, so proper venting is crucial.

Cell phone carriers and manufacturers urge users to buy their phones and batteries directly from phone companies.

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