FDA warns hospitals, doctors about fire hazards with medical cart batteries

fireextinguisher-211x300They’re likely jammed into many of the toys and electronic gadgets that overflowed the house during the holidays. But they’ve also been linked to sufficient fires that products have been recalled because of them, and some devices with them have even been banned in the nation’s skies. Now federal regulators are warning hospitals and doctors’ offices to beware, too: Their many battery-laden medical carts may burst into flames or explode.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has written to caregivers nationwide with a new caution that, within the last three years, it has received a dozen reports of “smoke, fire, melting batteries, burning, and other hazards” with medical carts. No injuries have been recorded but facilities have been evacuated due to smoke and fire hazards from cart blazes or smoldering, the FDA says. The rolling stations have grown increasingly common so staffers can conveniently dispense medication, or carry equipment related to colonoscopes, ultrasound, and anesthesia machines.

They’re also prized because their electrical sources—lead acid or increasingly lithium batteries—pack the power needed, they’re portable, convenient, and they’re long lasting. But those batteries also can generate a lot of heat, and they have proven problematic in other uses.

The Federal Aviation Agency has warned airlines about shipping large amounts of lithium ion batteries as cargo and has banned commercial carriers from allowing passengers to carry specific models of Samsung cellphones that have experienced meltdowns due to the batteries. Major retailers stopped selling popular hoverboards after their manufacturers recalled many of them in the face of notices by the Consumer Product Safety Commission about fires linked to their batteries. Some computer laptop owners and makers have experienced meltdowns and other overheating problems linked to the devices’ batteries.

The FDA, which regulates medical carts as medical devices, says that battery overheating or combustion poses special risks in health care settings. Battery fires can release noxious fumes, highly combustible oxygen supplies may be nearby, and there are challenges to extinguishing lithium battery fires. Water is not the optimal way to put out these blazes because of possible chemical reactions. Commercial foam extinguishers are preferred.

Federal regulators have called on caregivers to inspect their carts and batteries regularly and more rigorously, especially if they see the battery packs bulge, leak, or start to fail. They also recommended more extensive scrutiny of charging areas.

I see in my practice the harms that defective and dangerous products can inflict, and it’s good to see the FDA act, even in an abundance of caution, to ensure that medical carts and their batteries don’t imperil patients or their care. The warnings and best practices that federal regulators have recommended for airlines and health care institutions might seem distant from what makes sense in a typical home. But I’ve written that parents might want to stay on the safe side and keep close watch on what their kids and their devices do with all those many batteries, which not only can pose fire risks but also choking dangers in younger children.

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