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

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 has 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 go wrong — when furniture topplesover 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.

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