A devastating fire sparked by lithium ion batteries has once again struck the City of New York. This time, the fire struck the Chinatown neighborhood in the Borough of Manhattan, causing four deaths and thousands of dollars in damage.
Occurring just before midnight on June 19, 2023, New York City’s latest lithium-ion battery fire was ignited when e-bike batteries located in the HQ E-Bike Repair shop exploded. The business, on the ground floor of a six-story building in Chinatown, had been cited for safety violations in the summer of 2022.
Once the lithium-ion batteries exploded, fire quickly spread to the apartment units in the upper stories of the building. Two men and two women perished in the flames, and two other women were hospitalized with critical injuries. One firefighter was injured and was treated at the scene.
The bike shop itself was virtually destroyed; piles of burned bicycles and debris were stacked on the sidewalk outside the business. The owner of the bike shop claims that he wasn’t charging any e-bike batteries and routinely shuts off power to charging stations when the business closes each day. Damage to the apartment units above were extensive, and fire officials continue to seek answers as to what caused the blaze and how it spread so quickly.
A Pattern of Similar Fires
According the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), Tuesday’s blaze marked the 100th fire linked to explosions resulting from lithium batteries in 2023 alone. In May, an apartment building in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan experienced a similar fire; in that fire, four people were killed, including a 94-year-woman. A month prior, another fire in Queens killed two children and resulted in significant injuries for several apartment residents.
2022 was also a dangerous year for city residents, with almost 200 fires and six deaths tied to battery fires. In November, 2022, a huge fire in Manhattan caused over three dozen injuries and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. In this case and numerous others, fire officials pinpointed lithium-ion batteries as the culprits.
Why are Lithium-Ion Batteries so Dangerous?
Commonly used in rechargeable devices, including e-bikes, scooters, smartphones, and many other appliances, lithium-ion batteries are relatively safe, yet certain factors can cause them to explode or catch fire.
Lithium-ion batteries can be risky due to thermal runaway, a process where overheating can cause a dangerous chain reaction. This happens when overcharging, puncturing, or extreme heat compromises the battery. The electrolytes contained inside the battery’s casing are flammable and can leak if the battery is damaged. Also, charging issues can lead to metallic lithium plating that could cause short circuits. Finally, failure in the battery’s safety management systems can lead to unsafe conditions.
Even with safety measures in place, improper handling can make these batteries dangerous. And, with the rise in lithium-ion batteries originating from foreign suppliers, batteries made to lower standards with fewer safety features can result in fires that injure or kill innocent people.