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Some of last year's hottest gifts turned out to be too hot - literally. Hoverboards were catching fire, later with some Samsung smartphones. These products aren't inherently dangerous, but every once in a while a small manufacturing error or counterfeit element causes their lithium-ion batteries to overheat. NPR's Alina Selyukh visited an obscure government agency that's trying to make these batteries safer.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Picture this - you're at a park out on a walk with a baby. A friendly middle-aged man approaches you and says, your stroller may be really dangerous.
ELLIOT KAYE: The moms are usually a little bit more receptive. And the dads are like, hey buddy, get out of our space.
SELYUKH: You might think this man is crazy but actually he's the nation's product safety chief.
KAYE: Now almost everything that we interact with in our daily lives from cribs for our children to lawnmowers to toasters to cellphone batteries, we are charged to make sure that those products are not presenting an unreasonable risk.
SELYUKH: Elliot Kaye's the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It's a small agency you usually hear about when things go wrong - when furniture topples on children or when smartphones start exploding. The CPSC does the recalls. And Kaye is not kidding. For thousands of products we buy and assume someone in the government makes sure they're safe, that someone is often his agency. Which made me wonder about his worldview.
So does that mean you sort of walk around your life constantly looking for things to go wrong? (Laughter).
KAYE: Yes, it does. And I can't - it's internalized at this point. You can't help it. You just automatically see the hazards.
SELYUKH: And then there's this place in a Maryland suburb, a CPSC lab where the hazards are recreated.
DOUG LEE: We make everybody put on the glasses.
SELYUKH: It's called the National Product Testing and Evaluation Center. This place is crawling with cables and wires and dissected appliances. This is where burnt hoverboards and Samsung Galaxy Note 7s arrived for review.
LEE: My name is Doug Lee. I'm a electrical engineer at CPSC.
SELYUKH: He's the man you heard earlier handing out safety glasses. Lee's the top battery experts here and he's standing over one of those flammable electric scooters to see how it overheats. It sits on two spinning pipes and they run it at full speed. To accelerate, it it's tilted forward by weights on a stand.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOVERBOARD)
SELYUKH: Faintly, you can smell burnt rubber. Next door they've got some burned battery packs, too. They scatter into what looks like scorched and rusted shell casings. In lithium batteries it's all about maintaining temperature, current and voltage. And the smallest error can cause short circuits, like what happened with some Galaxy Note 7s where a curved corner on the battery was cited as the cause of overheating.
KAYE: We all want batteries that are smaller, that are more powerful, that discharge more slowly and charge more quickly. And I think that that might be pushing up against design limitations and certainly tightness of manufacturing restrictions of trying to get it right.
SELYUKH: CPSC relies heavily on the companies to comply with voluntary standards and to report hazards immediately as required by law. But electronics are changing really fast. And Kaye hopes his agency of 570 people can be more proactive.
KAYE: Because so many products, safety is an afterthought, if that. And I've talked to entrepreneurs who say to me, I never would have thought of that. Like, we're so busy raising money, trying to get it to work, filing our patents, getting to market. We never thought about consumer safety.
SELYUKH: The commission has now approved a new initiative to work with other agencies in the industry to figure out what may be missing with batteries. And Kaye hopes the new leadership under President Trump continues that work. Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Washington.
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