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Proposed battery restrictions could crimp e-commerce, air travel

Stricter federal rules would affect gadget-loving fliers, electronics makers

By Eric Lai
February 5, 2010 07:59 PM ET

Computerworld - Buying your next laptop computer or smartphone online could suddenly get a lot more expensive if a little-known U.S. Department of Transportation proposal to tighten rules around the shipment of small, battery-powered devices by air goes through, says an industry group opposing the move.

Airline passengers would be affected too, as rules banning spare lithium-ion batteries in checked-in luggage would also be extended to alkaline and nickel metal-hydride batteries, argues George Kerchner, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Portable Rechargeable Battery Association.

"It will be a nightmare for passengers," Kerchner said.

On January 8th, the department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) announced plans to eliminate exceptions on small lithium cells and batteries, defined as less than 100-watt hours in capacity (typical laptop batteries hold 60-80 watt-hours).

Small lithium batteries are considered a class 9 hazardous material, a miscellaneous category which includes dry ice and magnetized goods. Batteries under the 100 watt-hour limit had long been exempted from the rules.

The PHMSA, in consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and related legislative committees, says undoing the exception will force vendors and transport companies to use stronger packaging and cut down on the number of accidents.

"Under existing regulations, a flight crew may not be made aware of a pallet containing thousands of lithium batteries on board the aircraft, yet a five-pound package of flammable paint or dry ice would be subject to the full scope of the regulations," said Minnesota Democratic representative and House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman, Jim Oberstar, in a statement. "That makes little sense,"

The full text of the Department of Transportation's proposal can be viewed online, and people may also leave comments.

Kerchner says that instead of stricter rules, we'd be better off with stricter enforcement of existing rules.

The proposed changes would affect everything from power tools to defibrillators and iPads. Even button battery-powered hearing aids would be impacted, he said.

And by making the U.S. stricter than the International Civil Aviation Organization that governs the rest of the world, Kerchner said, it will require manufacturers and shippers to make sweeping, costly changes to how they package, label and ship consumer electronics and computer goods.

For instance, the battery inside an already-padded box for a new notebook PC might need to be packaged in an additional fiberboard box along with extra shipping documents, he said.

It could also mean untold numbers of workers overseas and in the U.S. will have to get "fully-regulated hazmat" training to simply handle a box with an iPod or HP laptop inside, Kerchner said.

"We're talking about billions of dollars," he said. Those new costs will likely be passed on by manufacturers and shipping companies to customers.

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