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Experts warn against buying loose lithium ion batteries that cause fire hazard

An NBC News investigation found that 18650 lithium ion batteries that can cause a fire hazard if sold individually are being sold on multiple major websites.
/ Source: TODAY

A powerful lithium ion battery that experts say should not be sold individually because of the dangers of explosion and injuries is being sold directly to unsuspecting customers, an NBC News investigation has found.

NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen shared on TODAY Monday that she found thousands of results for 18650 batteries on Amazon and despite a new warning from the Consumer Product Safety Commission to "not use loose 18650 lithium ion cells" because they can cause "serious injury or death ... and are not intended for individual sale to consumers."

The 18650 battery is named for its size (18 x 65 millimeters) and is one of the most common lithium ion batteries in the world, found in everything from laptops to tools and toys. Cheap knockoffs of the battery are also common and can be highly combustible, having sparked fires in buyers' purses and even their pants, according to security videos viewed by NBC News.

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Experts say they should never be sold loosely like AAA or AA batteries because they don't have circuitry that protects them, so if they come into contact with metal items like coins or keys, they can combust and start a fire.

Columbia University professor Dan Steingart, who has 20 years of experience studying and developing batteries, outlined the dangers on TODAY.

"You will, at the very least, burn your hand if it short circuits," he told Nguyen. "And at the very worst, you will start a fire."

Nguyen found reviews of the batteries on Amazon in which customers wrote that they were "dangerous" and "got extremely hot and started smoking," with one person writing that they were a "fire hazard" and "almost burnt my home down."

Amazon lists the 18650 batteries as a prohibited item, but the investigation found ones sold by third parties as well as directly by Amazon. The ones sold directly were part of Amazon's "warehouse deals," which are products that have been returned and are resold at a discount after going through a quality check. (That check includes a sticker on the box that says "inspected.”)

Experts warn that consumers should not buy loose 18650 batteries, as they can pose a fire hazard.
Experts warn that consumers should not buy loose 18650 batteries, as they can pose a fire hazard. TODAY

NBC News bought 11 items from Amazon's warehouse deals that came packaged with loose 18650 batteries and were labeled as "inspected." They were all tested last year at Columbia University's engineering lab, which found that nine of them were knockoffs.

The knockoffs contained far less charging components inside under X-rays, compared to normal batteries.

"If the battery is not made the way you're expecting it to be made, it's inherently unsafe," Steingart said.

Steingart's team also cut open one of the batteries in a safety chamber to inspect the materials.

"You shouldn't use this battery," Steingart said while examining the opened battery. "It's not designed well, it shouldn't be sold, people shouldn't be using it."

Amazon told NBC News that it's OK to sell the batteries as long as their packaged with other items like a flashlight. The company said listings for loose 18650 batteries are banned, but NBC News found numerous listings of exactly that in a search.

Amazon then removed the listings for loose 18650 batteries after being informed about them by NBC News and said it will be sweeping the marketplace for listings that violate its terms.

"Safety is a top priority," Amazon said in a statement to NBC News. "We have proactive measures in place to prevent suspicious or non-compliant products from being listed, and we monitor the products sold in our stores for product safety concerns."

After we published our story, Walmart responded saying they will remove stand-alone 18650 battery listings from their marketplace.

Intellectual property attorney Chris Johnson is suing Amazon to get the batteries off its marketplace.

"I am absolutely certain it's a real danger," he told Nguyen. "It is inconceivable to me that Amazon is unaware that these 18650 batteries are not hazardous. They know they're hazardous."

For customers trying to discern if the 18650 battery they are purchasing is safe, Steingart told Nguyen that if it has a fancy wrapping and looks like it's ready to be plugged into your device, that's a big red flag. The normally have a plain blue wrapper on them that should be already built into your device where you never see it