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Wednesday, July 22, 2009, 03:35 pm PT (06:35 pm ET)

Apple accused of stalling iPod battery fire investigation

Following up on numerous reports of iPod batteries catching fire, a Seattle reporter says that Apple actively prevented her and others from learning the true scope of the safety hazard.

KIRO 7's Amy Clancy claims that her seven-month search for data was repeatedly frustrated as Apple asked for Consumer Product Safety Commission reports to be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act, hiding them from public view.

The investigation began in November after one iPod shuffle owner was burned when the battery ignited during a run, burning her where the iPod was clipped on. The victim, Jamie Balderas, at the time said she had contact Apple and provided photos as evidence but was purportedly dismissed by an AppleCare agent as encountering an "isolated incident" and that access to proof of previous incidents wasn't an option. The mother of a child given a mild burn also says Apple phone representatives didn't appear responsive to the problem.

Clancy searched on her own but submitted the FIA request after discovering the already widespread reports of iPod battery fires, which among other responses had prompted a Japanese government investigation.

When she finally received the requested information, however, she was surprised at just how long Apple and the CPSC had been aware of problems: fires had been reported as long ago as 2005 and have been noted periodically ever since. The 800-page report had even already pinpointed the lithium-ion battery packs as the likely causes because of their occasional tendency to overheat, but despite the evidence, hadn't led to a mandatory recall. Commission officials had determined that the the scarcity of incidents — just a handful compared to the 175 million iPods sold at the time — had made the risk of any injury, let alone any serious injuries, "very low." It also believed that newer batteries weren't shown vulnerable to the same sort of overheating.

The iPod maker for its part has partly responded to such issues in the past, but not comprehensively. Although it began a voluntary replacement program last year for owners of first-generation iPod nanos, some of whose batteries were known to be defective, it hasn't given recourse to owners of other iPod models affected by the problem, whether Balderas or a Cincinnati woman who just in March sued Apple for negligence in the wake of a second-generation iPod touch fire exhibiting similar symptoms.

Apple hasn't responded to the reporter's assertions.