Flash fires: the hidden hazards of binning batteries

17th May 2024

Many of us have a ‘drawer of doom’. Among the old post-it notes, dried-out pens, tarnished coins and random hair accessories usually lie used batteries – from AAs and AAAs to button cells and torch batteries. And don’t forget the other items with hidden batteries that we stash away in cardboard boxes and cupboards, like old mobile phones, vapes or kids’ toys.

There’s little point in holding onto these batteries and unused electricals. But when you do get around to disposing of them, never put them in the bin!

Why you should never bin hidden or loose batteries

When hidden and loose batteries are thrown in with general rubbish, they can get crushed in bin lorries and at recycling centres and spark dangerous fires. Last year alone, there were over 1,200 preventable battery fires across the UK, which led to significant air pollution spikes and danger to the local community.

Batteries also contain some of the most valuable materials on earth that are infinitely recyclable. We lose these materials forever when we throw batteries and electricals containing hidden batteries in the bin.

So remember to always recycle them separately from your household rubbish or recycling by using a designated drop-off point for batteries and electricals

Fire services warns of the dangers

Battery-related fires are particularly challenging to deal with because of the hazardous chemicals. “These fires can be explosive and spread rapidly with the risk of reignition and toxic gasses a risk to firefighters,” explains Mark Andrews, Waste and Recycling Fires Lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council. “To control and fully extinguish the fire requires large numbers of firefighters and drains finite fire service resources, creating further risks to the community.” 

You only have to view live footage of a lithium-ion battery fire to see the scarily rapid rate of development which makes these incidents particularly hazardous and volatile,” adds James Bull, Station Commander for Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. “They can take many fire service resources to tackle them and they are notoriously difficult to extinguish given that the flame heat release rate from a lithium-ion battery fire can be 7 times more intense than a traditional flame.”

These preventable fires are not only time consuming for firefighters, but also unnecessarily endanger their lives and the lives of those working on lorries and at waste plants. 

The impact of battery fires on the community 

Battery fires are not only putting fire services and waste plant staff at risk; they also have a significant impact on local communities. 

Herne Hill in South London experienced a battery fire last September (2023), where a fire broke out at a waste transfer station caused by a binned battery. The fire lasted over 4 days, covering a very densely populated area in a pall of smoke.

Families like Bethan Taylor-Smith’s faced dangerous repercussions. “We live half a mile from the scene of the fire and the smoke was so bad we were advised to close our windows and stay indoors for the duration of the incident – four days, in the middle of a heatwave! My toddler started having breathing issues and developed a cough, and things got so bad we visited a walk-in centre and eventually A&E. In the end, we went to stay with family for a few days so that our daughter and dog could enjoy time outside.

“We were all concerned about the length of time that the fire burned for and how this affected the local community, especially given how some residents were forced to move out of the area because of the impact this had on their health and due to the fact they were unable to go outside during a national heatwave,” adds Councillor Jim Dickson, Herne Hill Ward & Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care, Lambeth. “Fires like these could be so easily prevented by ensuring that batteries are recycled.”

Battery fires are causing air pollution spikes

Battery fires like this also cause significant spikes in air pollution, as found by Professor Frank Kelly from the Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London. “Our analysis of fires at waste sites in Herne Hill and Brentford showed they contributed to the local pollution burden, with the fire in Herne Hill clearly leading to exceedances in the WHO health-based guideline for PM2.5.” 

Air pollution is not only a serious environmental concern, but a health concern too. Studies show that spikes cause hundreds of cardiac arrest and strokes in the UK and particularly affect those with health conditions. 

“The health impacts of waste fires, including respiratory issues, are of great concern, and we’d advise that residents avoid opening windows at all costs while local air pollution concentrations are elevated and that everyone should wear a mask if they absolutely must venture outside while the fire is burning,” adds Professor Kelly. “The status of local air quality can be checked on www.londonair.org.uk.

The science behind battery hazards

It’s easy to think something so small won’t matter. But if we throw batteries and electricals in with our general rubbish, they can get crushed or punctured in bin lorries and waste centres. This releases chemicals, which, when they come into contact with the air, can spark serious and dangerous fires.

Battery-related fires can be explosive and spread rapidly, with re-ignition and toxic gases posing a huge risk to firefighters.

Such incidents also pollute the atmosphere and cause health issues for local residents, schools and businesses, raising serious concerns among public health officials and firefighters.

Getting rid of your old batteries and electricals

“Something as simple as recycling your small electricals correctly can go a long way in preventing lithium-ion battery fires,” Laura Fisher, re3 Operational Manager for FCC Environment.

The only safe way and responsible to dispose of old batteries and electricals is by recycling them. Make sure you recycle them separately from your household rubbish and recycling. Find a designated drop-off point for batteries and electricals

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