Co.Design

TV Report Ignites iPod Fire Scare, We Throw Water on It

A Seattle television station is trying to fan 15 iPod malfunctions into a raging controversy. The truth is that your socks are more dangerous than your iPod.
Fiery iPod
There's a lot of fuss on the Internet this morning, centering on the supposed risk that your iPod could suddenly heat to the point it'll burn your skin or even burst into flame. Chill out people! The numbers just don't add up.

The story began at KIRO TV, a Seattle CBS affiliate: The company's Web site recently published an article titled "Is Apple Hiding Problems With Fiery iPods?" According to KIRO, Apple iPods have overheated and "burst into flames and smoke" several times, subsequently "injuring people and property." That sounds bad, but wait, the next bit sounds worse: Apparently this issue, and KIRO's seven-month investigation is something "Apple has apparently been trying to keep out of the public eye." KIRO 7 Investigation Team! On your side!

So how many people have been injured or had property damaged? Fifteen in the U.S., according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That's 15 apparently iPod-sourced incidents. Apple just reported it sold 10 million iPods globally in the last quarter alone, and that figure actually represents a decline in sales. Let's say that the CPSC figures document 15 iPod events from a total iPod sales pool of some 30 million sold in the U.S. in the last couple of years.

ipod fires infographic
To put this figure in perspective, consider these numbers from Britain--a country with just 60 million people, versus the U.S.'s 300 million. In 1999, 37 Brits were hospitalized due to teapot cozy-related burns. in 2002; 11,788 people were hospitalized after an accident caused by pulling on socks or stockings; 933 people were injured by false teeth; and 1,148 by chainsaws. Worse than all these? Food wrapping--67,000 people harmed themselves trying to get into sandwiches or drinks cans. The British aren't unusually accident-prone, by the way, and I'm aware that these aren't necessarily product flaw-related injuries--but they illustrate a fair point. Stuff that you own can hurt you. is your sock drawer hiding a silent killer? Tonight at 10!

Lithium-ion batteries, the apparent cause of the iPod fires, are known to be tricky. Sony experienced a nightmare a year ago when a manufacturing flaw exposed millions of its laptop cells to an increased fire risk. Apple itself has issued a recall for some iPods where it was proven a manufacturing flaw put them at risk too. These cells represent cutting-edge physics, chemistry, and engineering, crammed into tiny spaces filled with plastic and metal components. As much as we'd like, you can't expect every single one to work flawlessly. Even the Pope isn't that infallible.

This also explains why Apple seems to have been acting as the bad guy--by apparently trying to block the KIRO team from compiling meaningful stats. The 15 incidents uncovered by the station equate to a failure rate of around 0.00005%. That's vanishingly small, but it's enough for a reporter to blow it up into a sensationalist piece.

Apple may very well have messed up in individual cases, and it should have investigated, admitted it was at fault when found to be so, and compensated the injured accordingly. It's ghastly if something you own ends up accidentally hurting you, especially if it's a serious injury or leaves a scar, and Apple may ultimately choose to issue another product recall for the offending iPods. But, frankly, we live in a world filled with gadgets that incorporate brand-new technology. Some of it, sometimes, is just going to go wrong.

[KIRO via San Francisco Chronicle]

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