Flashlight explodes in woman's hand

January 22, 2009 5:42:06 PM PST
A Saratoga couple says they want to shine a light on an explosive problem getting little attention. Certain kinds of flashlights and typical household batteries can be a fiery combination.

The last thing you expect when you turn on a flashlight is it to explode in your hand. But that's what a Saratoga woman says happened to her.

Caron Whitacre remembers being left dazed and stunned after she turned on her flashlight.

"I was holding on to it. After I turned it on, the batteries shot across the room, hit the light switch plate and broke it and dented the wall," said Caron Whitacre

But not before the batteries ricochet off a book on the nightstand, and the force of the batteries left an indentation.

Caron's husband was in an adjacent room when it happened.

"So I came running into the bedroom and I was getting pretty scared at that point in time, and I came over, she still was dazed," said Rick Whitacre.

The explosion left a big crack in her waterproof flashlight, the tips of the batteries also came off and she says her hearing was temporarily impaired.

A UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering says the odds of a flashlight exploding are extremely small.

"I mean it literally when I say your chances of being hit by lightning are much better than your chances of having a flashlight battery fail in this matter," said UC Berkeley chemical engineer Elton Cairns, Ph.D.

It's rare, but it does happen.

The fact sheet from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health highlights two incidents: An exploding flashlight in 1992 slightly injured one firefighter. It happened again in 1995, but the firefighter escaped uninjured.

Both incidents involved waterproof flashlights like the one that exploded in Caron's hand.

"So these waterproof flashlights have sealed cases so water can't get in. That also means gas cannot get out," said Cairns, Ph.D.

He says typical batteries contain hydrogen. If the battery corrodes inside the waterproof flashlight, pressure from the hydrogen can build up in the flashlight until it bursts or explodes.

Caron has filed a complaint with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but the agency has shown no interest in looking into her complaint.

"I would just love to get the word out that these things happen, so other people don't get hurt, especially a kid, because kids love flashlights," said Caron Whitacre

The commission declined to look into Caron's concern because it considers a problem a small risk. But the national institute for occupational safety and health has some safety tips.

  • Don't mix batteries of different brands or different age.
  • Don't mix alkaline with non-alkaline batteries.
  • Open your battery compartment to allow Hydrogen to escape.