By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — Thick smoke and gases released by burning e-bike and scooter batteries could be as dangerous as the toxins that swirled around Ground Zero after 9/11 or the military’s burn pits in Afghanistan, says an FDNY union that wants more done to protect firefighters from the blazes.
Because city firefighters battle an average three lithium-ion battery fires each week, better protocols are needed to ensure cleaning of bunker coats, air tanks and respirators covered by smoke residue from the blazes, said Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.
Ansbro fears exposure to gases and residue from burning heavy metals in e-bike batteries could cause cancer and other long-term health problems for members of his union.
“We have to start looking at the firefighters’ gear,” Ansbro told the Daily News. The equipment “should be decontaminated immediately after these fires occur,” he said.
In 2022, e-bike and scooter batteries caused 216 fires, which ended in 147 injuries and six deaths. That was more than double the number of such fires from 2021, when blazes caused by e-bike batteries sparked 104 fires, 79 injuries and four deaths, FDNY officials said.
So far in 2023, the number of e-bike fires shows no signs of abating. As of this week, the Fire Department has blamed e-bike batteries in 22 fires, 36 injuries and two deaths.
Ansbro has begun conversations with FDNY Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh to ramp up the cleaning of bunker gear after e-bike battery fires.
Ansbro hopes for a study on the long term health effects of repeat exposure to burning lithium-ion batteries.
“We really don’t know what the long term effects of the smoke will be on our members,” he said. “They shouldn’t be taking the dirty gear from these fires and bringing it back to the firehouse.”
“The FDNY is committed to working with our unions and other public safety partners to ensure our members have the best tools and equipment available to do their dangerous jobs safely and successfully,” Kavanagh said in a statement to The News.
New York firefighters’ gear is routinely cleaned — but not after every fire, Ansbro said. In other municipalities, he said, bunker gear worn while fighting fires is immediately cleaned after firefighters are exposed to burning chemicals or materials that could be immediately dangerous to life or health.
The FDNY’s current cleaning and decontaminating policies for its protective gear exceeds national standards, an FDNY spokesman said.
City firefighters are issued two sets of bunker clothes to wear while fighting fires. Each set receives an annual full-service laundering and firefighters can have their gear sent in to be cleaned at any time. It’s recommended that firefighters have their gear cleaned after multi-alarm blazes, FDNY officials say.
Lithium-ion batteries — common in rechargeable batteries used in electric cars, laptop computers, cell phones, and other mobile devices — contain metals such as cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which are toxic and have been known to contaminate water supplies near landfills where they are discarded.
Repeat exposure to large quantities of manganese — which is used in the manufacturing of steel, and can be found in our bodies in small amounts — could result in lung, liver and kidney damage, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The Fire Department blames the deadly spate of e-bike battery fires on after-market replacement batteries that are not designed to normal safety standards.
When lithium-ion batteries catch fire, they release “a dangerous gas mixture” of “highly explosive, hazardous, and carcinogenic components,” a 2016 study in Germany found.
But that’s not the biggest challenge firefighters face combatting lithium-ion battery blazes.
In a traditional fire, it takes roughly three minutes for a blaze to consume the room it was sparked in, FDNY officials say.
But when one lithium-ion cell in a multi-cell battery overheats, that heat can transfer to nearby cells resulting in a chain reaction known as “thermal runaway.”
A fire resulting from thermal runaway can become more intense and spread quicker. Individual cells in the batteries can explode, producing an intense and violent blaze that can engulf a room within seconds.
A lithium-ion battery blaze in a Brooklyn apartment building on Feb. 14 spread so rapidly and was so intense that the building’s fire alarms and sprinkler systems, which were operational, were completely useless, FDNY officials said.
Ansbro said a program to make sure bunker gear is cleaned after every e-bike fire is essential and will open to door to more frequent equipment cleanings after fires in which firefighters are exposed to other burning metals and chemicals.
“The time has come to start cleaning their gear more frequently,” he said. “I’m sure there are long term effects to the smoke and chemicals that is left on their gear after these fires.
“We want to save our members’ lives 20 to 25 years down the line by being proactive,” he said.