The new year brings new shipping standards for lithium batteries—and though they're designed to improve safety, the new rules may not be enough to protect us. The Wall Street Journal explains that the batteries can "spontaneously ignite" if they're damaged or overheated, which is exactly what can happen when huge quantities are packed together for shipping, often via cargo plane. The batteries are suspected in a pair of such plane crashes that killed four pilots over two years—as well as 24 airplane-related "combustion incidents" in the US during the past three years, according to regulators.
With a report due soon on the 2010 crash of a UPS 747 in Dubai, calls for a crackdown are getting louder. Pilots and safety experts say it's time to tighten rules on the quantity of batteries allowed in a shipment, and they want more protection against damaged batteries. With more than a billion lithium batteries produced annually, they're "going to be part of our lives and transportation, so we need to step up and find a way to appropriately oversee it," says a flight safety advocate. But gadget makers and battery suppliers say we just need to enforce current rules. Meanwhile, some airlines have taken steps of their own: Air France flight attendants are now trained to use water or juice, rather than a fire extinguisher, to put out a personal electronics fire; Emirates Airline now keeps fireproof bags aboard its passenger planes.