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FDA warns of fires, explosions from battery-powered medical carts

Federal agency tells providers it has received reports of hospital fires requiring hospital evacuations, according to letter to administrators.

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning providers and facility administrators about fires caused by lithium batteries in battery-powered mobile medical carts.

The FDA has received reports of hospital fires and other health hazards, including explosions, fires, smoking, or overheating of equipment that required hospital evacuations, that were associated with batteries used in mobile medical carts and their chargers, according to the letter published Tuesday on the FDA website.

The events, which range from smoke and overheating to equipment fires and explosion, can occur with lithium, lead acid, and other types of batteries. Such hazards may result in equipment and facility damage, hospital evacuation or patient and staff injury, the FDA said.

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In addition, lithium battery fires are very difficult to extinguish. In several reports, firefighters had to bury mobile medical cart batteries to extinguish a fire, according to William Maisel, MD, Deputy Center Director for Science, Center for Devices and Radiological Health with the FDA.

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The warning about the battery-powered mobile medical carts includes crash carts, medication dispensing carts, and carts that carry and power medical devices for point of care, barcode scanners, and patient monitoring.

"These carts typically have high capacity lithium or lead acid batteries that can power medical devices and workstations (computers) for many hours," Maisel said.

Lithium batteries store a lot of energy, are used as power sources in everything from jet engines to smartphones, and are known to catch fire and sometimes explode.

The FDA regulates medical carts, which can function as an accessory to medical devices for medication dispensing, and for services involving colonoscopes, ultrasound machines, and anesthesia machines.

The FDA recommends that providers inspect batteries for signs of damage, including bulging, swelling, or cracks; notify the manufacturer of damaged batteries; inspect battery chargers and carts containing chargers for overheating components; and vacuum to remove dust and lint around battery chargers and carts containing chargers.

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Do not use batteries that do not charge properly and ensure that batteries are replaced at the manufacturer-recommended replacement intervals.

Also, the agency said it is important to conduct a survey of battery charger locations, and verify that all chargers are located in easily visible, fire retardant locations away from patient care areas and open sources of oxygen.

For safety, do not install chargers or charging carts in confined spaces and keep flammable and explosive objects away from battery chargers and charging carts. Do not block any charging station vents, do not tape or attach any object or material to a battery charger and only operate and store the battery charger and cart with charger outside of patient rooms and in non-patient care areas.

Contact the manufacturer if there is a problem with any component, and be sure to request maintenance and user manuals for the carts, chargers, batteries, and all accessories from the manufacturer.

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Also, make sure the battery meets standards for use in a hospital environment.

If a fire occurs, immediately report it according to hospital protocol for a Class C electrical fire, the FDA said.

Do not touch the battery but unplug the charger or power off the cart if it is safe to do so.

Report adverse events to the FDA. The FDA has collected and analyzed data, and said it would continue to monitor this situation.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse