Lithium, the lightest metal found in the natural world, has a silver or pale gray hue, and it is usually encountered in solid metal or powder form. It gives off no scent, and it has to be extracted from hard rock and sedimentary rock, or more often by evaporating brines under salt flats, such as is done in the Andes (South America is the top producer of lithium). As powerful and versatile as lithium can be, the dangers start at the source, as mining the material is often damaging to the environments and communities surrounding the mining operations. For example, mining companies Chile, which has the largest lithium reserves in the world, use a water-intensive process for lithium extraction, which severely depletes local water reservoirs such that locals have to transport water in just to have drinking water and continue agricultural efforts.
In this article, we're going to examine the benefits and dangers of lithium, both in the products that utilize lithium and some of the workplaces where lithium is present.
What Is Lithium Used For?
As a powder, lithium is used in the manufacture of glass and ceramic products, in dyes and varnishes, in lubricating greases, and to coat arc welding electrodes.
Medical purposes. As early as the 1800s, lithia water was prescribed for mania and gout. Later that century, when lithium tablets were developed, the first instance of lithium toxicity was documented (more on that later). Since then, the FDA has approved improved versions of lithium tablets to medicate patients with a bipolar diagnosis. The lithium batteries we'll discuss next also power hearing aids, pacemakers, infusion pumps, and so much more.
Batteries. While there are other applications for lithium, by far its most common purpose is to power modern devices. Lithium batteries charge faster than traditional batteries and are lightweight while still producing more power. They're also touted as a maintenance-free source of power for everything from wearable technology to concrete mixer trucks and forklifts.
Lithium batteries are the power source for:
- Electric cars, e-bikes, electrical scooters, and hoverboards
- Smart phones and tablets
- Wearable cameras
- Solar energy batteries
- Industrial machines and equipment
An exhaustive list is simply not possible. Ever since the 1990s, lithium can be found in nearly every corner of our lives.
Dangers of Lithium Ingestion
Even when taken as a prescribed medicine, it is possible to have lithium build up in the kidneys or to accidentally overdose. This is especially true for elderly patients, who are affected by even smaller doses. With its "narrow therapeutic index", there is a thin line between the medicinal benefits of lithium and lithium toxicity. Too much lithium in your system can cause brain problems, kidney disorders, and hypothyroidism, and it can also affect your heart, such that your body is undersupplied with blood. It depends on how well the body can expel lithium, which usually happens through the kidneys and urine.
Lithium toxicity can look like:
- Tremors in the brain
- Hyperreflexia (twitchiness plus the heart beating slower than 60 beats per minute)
- Nystagmus (rapid eye movements)
- Trouble speaking, swallowing, and/or balancing
- Trouble urinating
- Salt-losing nephritis (fatigue, excessive thirst, excessive urination)
- Nephrotic syndrome (a kidney condition that causes too much protein to be lost in urine)
In an overdose situation, stomach pumping may be necessary. However, dialysis is usually the most effective method of clearing lithium from your system. Whatever the case, if someone is exhibiting any of the symptoms above (especially if their medication or dosage was recently changed), then get medical attention ASAP.
Dangers of Lithium Batteries
One of the advantages of lithium batteries is that they can contain massive amounts of energy in a compact space, but this is exactly what can make them dangerous if they overheat. In 2018, a report found that within the past five years, there had been more than 25,000 fire or overheating incidents, and it wasn't just due to one type of product, but was from more than 400 different lithium-powered devices.
Lithium battery fires can reach temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees or more, which can melt aluminum.
What can happen with any type of lithium battery is that if one of the battery cells overheats, this can quickly spread to other cells in a chain reaction known as thermal runaway. This process can lead directly to combustion, or it can release substances such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and other highly flammable byproducts.
What types of damage can make a lithium battery overheat/burst into flames?
- Exposure to moisture
- Improper use
- Exposure to below-freezing temperatures
- Exposure to heat sources 130 degrees Fahrenheit or more
- Impact from falls
- Aging/wear and tear
Now lithium batteries are perfectly safe—as long as they're well-designed, of good quality, and remain undamaged. When it comes to sound design and/or using quality materials, there are manufacturers that lack oversight in order to ensure that they meet safety standards, such as with electrical scooters, hoverboards, e-bikes, and so forth, per the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Battery packs are another area of unregulated products.
As a sample of these dangers, let's look at just a few recent lithium-battery incidents in New York City:
- In July of 2022, a parked electric bus burst into flames
- August of 2022, an electric scooter burst into a flames in an apartment, killing two people
- January of 2023, an electric scooter again started a conflagration that engulfed a multi-home unit
Aggravating these incidents is the reality that water can cause reactions that lead to fires or explosions, meaning that to put out these fires, water cannot be relied on. Even though water might be able to prevent the fire from spreading, there are many types of lithium-battery fires that water and foam simply can't extinguish.
If it's a small fire from a small device, then sand or dirt may help extinguish the flames, or a Class D fire extinguisher (which uses dry powder). For larger fires, even professional firefighters can have their hands full. Even when surrounded by water, such as when lithium-battery fires happen aboard a ship, using the ocean itself as a water resource to keep misting the fire still won't directly extinguish the flames. All it can do is keep the fire from spreading and over time eventually bring down the temperature.
Are Lithium Batteries Safe to Touch?
It can be disconcerting to find out that the ubiquitous lithium battery can also be disastrously powerful. The good news is that an undamaged lithium battery is totally safe to touch. However, if the shell is damaged, know that air or moisture can render the battery dangerous.
If the battery is generating extreme heat, swelling or bulging, emitting a cracking or hissing sound, smells strange, or is smoking, then take these steps:
- Turn off the device the battery is powering
- Unplug the device
- Move the device to an area that is far away from anything flammable
- Call 9-1-1
When moving a damaged or potentially damaged lithium battery, use tongs or gloves so as to not touch the battery or device with your hands.
Lithium & Workers in Manufacturing
If lithium is inhaled or contacted in powder form, such as in various manufacturing processes, then lithium can irritate the eyes, skin, nostrils, and lungs. In the long-term, inhaled lithium can also impair the thyroid gland, kidney, and heart.
Some of the more immediate signs of toxic exposure to lithium include:
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea
- Coughing and shortness of breath (potentially from fluid in the lungs)
- Muscle weakness and/or twitching
- Blurred vision
- Loss of coordination
If it is known that someone has inhaled lithium, then medical attention should be immediately sought out. If someone has been exposed to lithium over time or has had high exposure to lithium, then it may be prudent to test for blood, kidney, and thyroid conditions.
Lithium Batteries, Aircraft Pilots & Flight Crews
Many airlines allow passengers to bring their devices powered by lithium batteries in their checked baggage—if turned off and properly packaged—and as long as they're not specifically banned, such as the infamous Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Defective or damaged lithium batteries are not allowed onboard.
However, if lithium batteries aren't installed into any device, or if they're e-cigarettes of some kind, they can be allowed on a carry-on, provided they're properly packed and protected. Even with all the proper precautions, lithium batteries on a flight can still pose risks. If any of the onboard lithium batteries overheats, then these 1,100-degree fires can set off devices that are in close proximity. On-flight fires, smoke, and explosions do occur from personal devices on planes.
Why are these devices allowed in carry-ons? If smoke or fire breaks out, it can be dealt with by the flight crew, whereas if these devices malfunctioned in the cargo, it could spread unchecked. Because of this, crews are owed training on the special considerations involved with putting out a lithium-sparked fire.
Many organizations have outright banned air travel as a means of transporting lithium batteries as cargo on passenger planes, organizations that include the U.S. Department of Transportation & Federal Aviation Administration. If caught midair with a pallet of lithium batteries that experienced thermal runaway, this would set off disastrous fires.
In flights that can transport uninstalled medium and large batteries, the batteries must first have the UN 38.3 certification that means the batteries involved have passed simulations and tests.
These tests include:
- Simulations of unpressurized aircraft flight for six hours
- Alternating between high temperatures and freezing temperatures for several hours
- Tests of handling the shocks and vibrations of transportation
- Surviving a crash
- Drops, overcharging, and more
Even the batteries that pass are labeled as Dangerous Goods, though this is not the same as being considered Hazardous Material.
Lithium, Freight Train Crews, & Truck Drivers
When transporting lithium batteries by land, there are risks of fire, explosions, chemical leaks, and toxic fumes. Accordingly, there are regulations on how lithium can be contained and packaged, and what other products it can and cannot be transported alongside. The documentation must all be in order, and everyone involved, from those loading the truck or train to those operating the motor vehicle or locomotive, must be properly trained for loading and transporting this type of risky product. This level of great care is required even when batteries have been tested for stability and safety.
What about product recalls with defective lithium batteries? Who has to collect and transport them for proper disposal? These types of batteries are banned from aircraft. Quite often, freight train crews and truck drivers are tasked with this hazardous project. Again, regulations must be followed to the letter for this type of transport, ensuring that packaging and containers are adequate, the locomotives or vehicles involved are well-maintained, and that the workers involved are well-informed and well-trained concerning their hazardous load. Anything less can put train crews, truckers, and the communities that they travel through at risk.
Defective Lithium Products & Workplace Exposure to Lithium: What to Do
If a battery hasn't been damaged but still causes injuries or loss through bursting into flames, then defective design or manufacture may be to blame. Government officials and agencies are trying to catch up with new legislation and enforcement policies to ensure that safety standards are upheld in the making of devices powered by lithium batteries. In the meantime, individuals and families may have to go after negligent corporations themselves, such as through product liability lawsuits.
From workplaces that use lithium powder to industrial sites storing massive lithium batteries for the energy grid, workers are owed a safe workplace that avoids preventable risks. Whether those risks are preventable dust explosions, failing to keep up with truck maintenance, or a railroad company ignoring regulations, employers are often the parties that have to be held accountable for the disastrous consequences of their negligence. With lithium as ever-present as it is in our lives, the costs of cutting corners can be very high.