‘Plumes of smoke covered the neighbourhood for days’: Campaign raises the alarm on battery fires as cases rise

A new campaign is raising awareness of the importance of electricals and battery recycling after more than 1,000 fires were caused by lithium-ion batteries last year.

Stop Battery Fires, headed by Recycle Your Electricals and the National Fire Chiefs Council, comes after new research revealed that lithium-ion batteries caused more than 1,200 fires in UK waste systems in the last 12 months, up from 700 in 2022.

Lithium-ion batteries are inside household electronics from laptops to mobile phones, electric toothbrushes and vapes.

The batteries can become damaged in bin lorries or waste sites if they are not recycled, which can lead to explosions and chemical exposure. Lithium-ion batteries create their own oxygen, which means they keep reigniting, prolonging incidents with smoke and fumes for up to a week.

Drone footage of the fire at a waste transfer station in  Shakespeare Road, Herne Hill in 2023 (Picture: LFB)

The campaign highlights a particularly dangerous fire that took place at a waste transfer station in  Shakespeare Road, Herne Hill, on September 8, 2023.

The fire, which the London fire brigade (LFB) believe to have been caused by Lithium-ion batteries, needed 15 fire engines and about 100 firefighters at the scene. 

The blaze continued to burn for four days because the fire reignited. Firefighters managed to fully extinguish the fire after a controlled demolition of the building while it was still alight.

A resident in Brixton during the Herne Hill fire, Bethan Taylor-Swaine, 38, said: “We lived within half a mile of the scene and the smoke was so bad we were advised to close our windows and stay indoors for the duration of the fire – which was four days in the middle of a heatwave! 

Bethan Taylor-Swaine was a resident in Brixton during the fire (Picture: Anna Rachel Photography)

“My daughter suffered from breathing issues and a cough during this time – it got so bad we visited a walk-in centre and eventually A&E. 

“In the end, so that our daughter and dog could enjoy time outside, we decided to leave the area and stay with family for a few days.”

The fire had a significant impact on the communities, with residents being informed to close their windows and doors for four days.

Waste fires can cause significant spikes in air pollution.

Professor Frank Kelly from the faculty of medicine, school of public health at Imperial College London said: “Our analysis of the fire in Herne Hill shows it clearly led to exceedances in the WHO health based guideline for PM2.5.

“This meant that thousands of residents in the area were affected, and rightly advised to close windows. 

“The health impacts of waste fires, including respiratory issues, are of great concern.”

Still from drone footage of the 2023 fire in Herne Hill (Picture: LFB)

A survey of local authorities across the UK found that 94 per cent of councils said that fires caused by batteries in the waste stream were an increasing challenge. 

Cllr Jim Dickson, Herne Hill Ward and Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care, Lambeth, said: “I saw with my own eyes how the fire in Herne Hill and Brixton had a devastating impact on the community, with plumes of dark acrid smoke covering the neighbourhood for many days. 

“Fires like these could be so easily prevented by ensuring that batteries are recycled, which is why Lambeth council is supporting this campaign.”

New research from Recycle Your Electricals, conducted by Opinium, shows that more than 1.1billion electricals and 449.9million loose batteries were binned in the last year including 260million vapes

Phil Clark from the National Fire Chiefs Council said: “Fires involving the incorrect disposal of lithium-ion batteries are a disaster waiting to happen. 

“Fire services are seeing an increasing number of incidents, but they are preventable by correctly and carefully disposing of electricals.” 

Pictured top: New LFB recruits finish their final weeks of training before graduating (Picture: Timothy Jones)  

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