5 On Your Side

Wrong Batteries In Smoke Alarm Can Lead To Explosive Results

Posted June 12, 2006

— Smoke alarms save lives, but one model may pose a serious safety hazard.

Greg Emel found out the hard way when his alarm went off in the middle of the night. The sound switched to the low-battery chirp.

"As I took the battery out, I opened it up, and that's when the battery acid shot up into my eye," he said. "I could see it coming, but I couldn't react. It shot up that fast."

Emel went to the emergency room. His cornea was damaged.

"It was the most extreme pain I've ever had," he said.

It turns out people all over the country report exploding batteries in a particular model of First Alert smoke alarms manufactured before October 2000. The problem is when some brands of batteries are used, they can heat up, and even worse, explode.

"It's uncomprehensible to me that a company would allow something like this to continue," Emel said.

Even though the sticker inside Emel's smoke detector recommends the Duracell battery that exploded, First Alert posted a "recommendation" on its Web site a year ago. It said only specific models of Everready batteries should be used. It says other batteries "may bulge or open" inside the alarm.

In a statement to Five On Your Side, First Alert would only say there has been "an occasion" where the battery "bulged and slightly overheated."

First Alert would not talk about what is causing the problem, but a Duracell representative said it involves alarms that wire into your home electrical system. She said the problem is the electricity can actually charge the backup battery, which the battery cannot take, so sometimes it expands or explodes.

While Emel is thankful his eye is fine, he thinks the First Alert alarms should be recalled. But so far, it appears there's no plans to do that.

"The eye, the arm, if it had hit the sink, the mirror, wherever, this needs to be exposed to the public," he said.

The specific alarms involved are

First Alert models 4120B and 4120SB

, which were manufactured before October 2000. If you have one of those alarms in your house, be careful when you change the battery: Make sure the opening is away from you when you change it.

Emel plans to wear goggles from now on.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission will not say how many incident reports it has, but said the product works fine as long as the right battery is used. A spokeswoman added that "99 percent" of recalls are voluntary and usually happen when a company contacts them. So far, First Alert has not done that.

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