Posted: 3:24 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011

Apple Downplays Fiery iPod Incidents

            An exclusive KIRO 7 Investigation reveals an alarming number of Apple brand iPod MP3 players have suddenly burst into flames and smoke, injuring people and damaging property.

 

       It’s an investigation that Apple has apparently been trying to keep out of the public eye.



            It took more than 7-months for KIRO 7 Consumer Investigator Amy Clancy to get her hands on documents concerning Apple’s iPods from the Consumer Product Safety Commission because Apple’s lawyers filed exemption after exemption.  In the end, the CPSC released more than 800 pages which reveal, for the very first time, a comprehensive look that shows, on a number of occasions, iPods have suddenly burst into flames, started to smoke, and even burned their owners.

 

    Owners like Jamie Balderas of Arlington, Washington, who contacted KIRO 7 in November of 2008.


 “At first I thought, how in the heck did I get burned?  Right there?” she told Clancy, while pointing to a penny-sized, round burn on her chest.  “Then I remembered that I had my iPod right there.”


      Balderas says her brand new iPod Shuffle overheated while she was running days before, leaving her with a small burn right where the iPod was clipped to her shirt, next to her skin.  “My skin started burning really bad, like it was a bee sting that wouldn’t stop.”



Concerned, Balderas says she called Apple, wondering if such burns were common.  She even sent the company photos of her wound.  But Balderas says she was told by an Apple customer service representative that her burn was an isolated incident.  She says she asked Apple if she could get some documentation on how many other times this had happened, and what Apple was doing to correct the situation.  But Balderas claims the Apple customer service representative told her that she “wouldn’t be able to have access to it.”


Jumping online, KIRO 7 Consumer Investigators found plenty of complaints about iPods overheating.  Bloggers post photos of their charred and melted iPods.  And in Japan, the government even issued a warning to consumers citing "a number of accidents in which iPod Nanos" overheated and sparked, injuring two people.


 That led Clancy to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Consumer Product Safety Commission last December, asking to see all complaints related to iPods and burns or fire. 


When the documents finally arrived more than seven months later, they included more than 800 pages of information, including 15 burn and fire-related incidents blamed by iPod owners on their iPods.


One of the owners found in the documents was Haylie Mooney of Portland, Oregon.  She spoke with Clancy recently about what happened with the iPod she received for Christmas, 2007.


“I picked it up and it was really hot, and so my first instinct was to drop it so I didn’t burn myself.  But I looked at my hand and it was red and it started to get swollen.” 


Mooney is now 14 years old, but says she remembers the incident well.  “It was like touching the inside of an oven.  It was very hot.”


Haylie’s mother, Tami Mooney, called Apple to complain.  She claims she got the run-around.  “I was so frustrated because frankly, they didn’t care.  They didn’t care that my child was burned.  They didn’t care about the possibilities that other children were burned,” she told Clancy at her Portland-area home.  “I asked them, has this been happening?  Is this new?  And they said, we haven’t heard of this one yet.”


But by then, Federal records show that Apple did already know it had problems with its iPod batteries causing fires and burns.


Detailed in the documents Clancy obtained was the story of an iPod overheating "causing damage to home and harm to minor son" in Pennsylvania in 2005.

In 2006, a 17-year-old Illinois girl awoke to find her iPod Nano "smoking and sparking."

A Staten Island man "sustained a minor shock and some redness to his left hand" when he yanked his iPod Shuffle from the USB port after noticing "sparks and a reddish/orange glow." Also in 2006.



That same year, an iPod "caught fire aboard a ship with over 2000 persons onboard."



In 2007, fire alarms at a home in New York went off after an iPod Nano started smoking.  According to the CPSC report, smoke was "billowing" out of a teenage girl's bedroom because her iPod had "caught on fire,"  had "somehow fallen on the chair next to the desk," causing the chair to "smolder."



Also that year, in Atlanta, Daniel Williams' Nano suddenly burst into flames while in his pocket. He spoke about the incident to KIRO 7's sister station, WSB-TV.  “So I looked down and I see flames coming up to my chest, about here,” he told a reporter in October of 2007.



In 2008, a Michigan couple awakened by smoke alarms and rushed into their sleeping son's room to find his iPod smoking and melted.


            Six other similar claims are also detailed in the CPSC documents obtained by KIRO 7 Consumer Investigators.  The complaints concern various iPod models, some charging at the time, some not.  Some were older models, some brand new.



            So far, no serious injuries have been reported to the CPSC, but Tami Mooney of Portland believes it's only a matter of time.  And she says she was angry to read the reports Clancy shared with her, especially since many of them were filed after she had notified Apple about what had happened to her daughter. 


“That’s what I’ve been afraid of, is that that could have been a dead child because Apple didn’t care to fix it.  I’m horrified to learn it’s still going on.”



            Gordon Damant is a fire scientist and 30-year California state regulator.  He believes, when it comes to iPods, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and the potential for great harm. 



“Whenever you have a fire event of any kind, it can be potentially very serious,” he told Clancy recently while Damant was visiting Redmond, Washington, for the annual National Association of State Fire Marshals conference. 



“If a person has a device, is wearing a device that malfunctions it could ignite their clothing.  And once a person’s clothing becomes ignited, then you have potential for rapid flame spread.”


            Damant believes, as CPSC investigators detail in the documents, that the iPods’ lithium ion batteries could be the source of the problem.  Millions of lithium ion batteries were recalled by Dell and Apple in 2006 because over-heating problems in laptop computers caused fires.  But the Consumer Product Safety Commission is not recalling iPods. 



After conducting its own preliminary investigation, the federal agency determined that, with more than 175 million iPods sold, “the number of incidents is extremely small in relation to the number of products produced, making the risk of injury very low.”



            Nick Marchica, who worked for the CPSC for 28 years, explained it to Clancy this way: “The feds, the government guys came in.  They looked at this thing and they said, 'not yet.  Might be a problem down the line if we get more information, but not yet.'  We can’t ask this company to recall the product.'”



Others disagree.


“When is enough, enough?” Damant asked Clancy, while examining the 800 pages of documents she obtained.  “Looking at what you have here, it would clearly seem to me that the potential is there for them to do something because, in the past, they’ve negotiated recalls with very much less information than they’ve provided to you.”



While interviewing Balderas back in November, Clancy asked the Arlington woman what her biggest concern is.  Balderas quickly said, “there’s millions of these out there, and as a parent of five children, all of my children have at least one (iPod).  And they use these, and sometimes they listen to them at night when they’re in bed.  And what if the iPod is lying in bed and the sheets catch on fire?  I mean, this is worst case scenario, but I would feel terrible if I hadn’t tried to do something to help.”



Tami Mooney of Portland echoes the sentiment.  “They need to recall them,” she told Clancy.  Apple needs “to figure out, trouble shoot to the point that they know exactly what the problem is and pull them all.”  Clancy pointed out that, with more than 175 million iPods sold, that could have devastating financial consequences for Apple.  Mooney countered, “What’s it going to cost them if they kill a child and find out that there are these reports out there and Apple did nothing?”



Of all the people interviewed for Clancy’s report, including three consumer safety experts, all of them agree that the public should at least be aware of this potential problem, no matter how rare the cases might be.



Clancy asked that same question of Apple: should its customers know about this?  Apple refused to comment, and refused to answer all of the other questions Clancy has been asking of the company since November.



But the documents Clancy obtained indicate future action, including a recall, is possible. Apple has been notified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that it is the California company’s obligation to “inform the Commission of defects associated with this product which could create a substantial product hazard under 15 U.S.C 2064(a).”  The documents further reveal, if Apple “receives any information regarding other potential defects or hazards, it must report this information to the Office of Compliance and Field Operations immediately.”  And that the CPSC staff “will assess any new information concerning this product to determine if action should be taken to protect the public.”

 


One of the reasons the CPSC gives for not taking action now is because “the current generation of iPods uses a battery which has not been shown to have similar problems.”  When asked by Clancy, when this “current generation” of batteries started being used, and what type of battery it is, Apple would not comment.  But earlier this year a lawsuit against Apple was filed in Cincinnati because, the lawyer claims, an iPod Touch, one of Apple’s newest edition of iPods, also powered by a lithium ion battery, exploded and caught fire while in a teenager’s pocket.  The suit claims the boy suffered second-degree burns to his leg, and that the iPod was off at the time.  This incident is not included in the CPSC’s file.



            We'd also like to hear if a similar incident has happened with your iPod, so post your comments below.

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