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Dell Issues Largest Electronics Recall After Fire Fears

August 15, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, Jeffrey Brown examines those dangerous laptop computer batteries.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the world’s largest computer maker comes the biggest recall in computer history. Dell announced last night that it would recall more than four million batteries for laptop computers after the company documented several cases in which computers burst into flames.

There have been no injuries or deaths so far, but the problem has been linked to lithium ion batteries made by a division of Sony. The overheating batteries have been a concern for several years, and recent cases have raised new worries about their potential danger, including on airlines.

For more, we’re joined by the acting chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Nancy Nord. Her agency worked with Dell on the recall.

Welcome to you.

NANCY NORD, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: First describe these batteries for us. What are they, and how are they used?

NANCY NORD: Well, these are lithium ion batteries that are found in Dell notebook computers. They are basically the state-of-the-art batteries at this point. And these are chargeable batteries, rechargeable batteries, and they pack an awful lot of power into a very, very small package. They give consumers a great deal of functionality, as far as the use of the product is concerned, but unfortunately in this case we found some problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us exactly what the problem is. What makes them ignite?

NANCY NORD: The problem in this case deals with quality control in the manufacture of the battery. As best we can tell, a contaminant got into the cell and, when the battery is vigorously jostled or compressed, that contaminant can cause a short.

JEFFREY BROWN: So not a design problem?

NANCY NORD: Not a design problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: A manufacturing problem?

NANCY NORD: This was a quality control problem.

Documented cases

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us about some of the circumstances of some of the cases that have been documented so far.

NANCY NORD: Well, what happened in this particular instance is that Dell came to us last winter and described this problem with their batteries. And we, working with Dell, initiated a very limited recall to try to get to the products that we thought were posing the problem.

As Dell implemented that recall and looked at this problem in more depth, they came back to us and said, "You know, we're seeing additional problems come up, additional incidents come up."

JEFFREY BROWN: And these are incidences where the computer...

NANCY NORD: Where the battery has gone to flame. And at this point, nobody has been injured, but we have seen property damage.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what exactly are consumers supposed to do now?

NANCY NORD: Consumers who are concerned that they may have a Dell notebook computer with this battery should contact Dell or the CPSC,, and you will find instructions on what to do. Basically, you need to determine whether your notebook computer has the battery that's impacted. And if so, Dell will give you complete instructions on how to return the battery and get a new one.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just so we're clear, these are computers that were purchased between -- it's April 2004 and last month?

NANCY NORD: Yes, yes.

Isolated problem?

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you confident at this point that Dell has isolated the problem and is dealing with it correctly?

NANCY NORD: We are talking regularly with Dell and with Sony to make sure that this is an isolated problem and that the quality control procedures that are appropriate are put into place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, these batteries are used in other computers and other electronic products, correct?

NANCY NORD: Lithium ion batteries are ubiquitous, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So MP3 players, cell phones?

NANCY NORD: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a risk there?

NANCY NORD: Well, again, the problem that we are dealing with is a quality control problem in the manufacture of this particular set of batteries. We are working very closely with Dell to make sure that the problem is taken care of, so that, on a going-forward basis, we won't be seeing this kind of thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But are you able to look at the manufacturing process in other computer users or in these other electronic products at this point?

NANCY NORD: Again, we are looking at how this group of batteries has been used in other products. If we become concerned that the problem extends beyond Dell, we will deal with it.

New regulations

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the concerns that has been raised, as you know, is about the potential use on airlines.


JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there was an incident -- there have been several -- but there was one that got a lot of attention in February with a UPS jet where flames burst out in flight. I know there's an investigation ongoing, and it hasn't been definitively linked to this, but they are looking closely at the cargo. What more can you tell us about the airline safety issue?

NANCY NORD: Well, the CPSC is working very closely with the FAA and with the Transportation Safety Board. And, indeed, about 10 days ago the Transportation Safety Board had a hearing in Washington at which our experts were there to help them understand better the scope of the problem and what to do with it. So this is something that the relevant federal agencies are working to get a handle on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it possible that there will be some new regulations on that at some point?

NANCY NORD: The FAA or the NTSB may well choose to regulate.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one of your -- finally, one of your colleagues, Richard Stern, is quoted in today's New York Times as saying, "We'd expect more incidents and more recalls of these batteries." Does that sound right to you?

NANCY NORD: As I said at the beginning of this segment, we are packing more and more power into a very small battery. And as consumers demand more and more functionality from their electronic equipment, the battery is being called upon to do more and more chores. So we've got to make sure that, when these batteries are manufactured, they are manufactured to the kinds of standards that the U.S. government and U.S. consumers expect.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you do that -- are you planning on issuing new guidelines for manufacturing going forward?

NANCY NORD: We will not be issuing manufacturing guidelines; there are design standards in place now. And what we need to make sure is that manufacturers manufacture to those standards and that they have the appropriate quality control processes in place.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Nancy Nord of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, thank you very much.

NANCY NORD: Thank you.