AMITIAE - Monday 22 July 2013
Cassandra: iPhone Accidents and Reports
By Graham K. Rogers
When a second report of serious injury due to electrocution appeared, faulty non-standard chargers being sold in China were blamed, but the media had lost interest. Another incident in China also occurred (mercifully without injury), but one would have to look hard to find that reported.
There is a pattern here, and one that has been repeated a number of times in the last year or so: faulty iPhone claim hits the headlines; investigation finds that the fault was not due to original equipment; reports of the fact-finding are much more low key and almost ignored.
I went back over the last few such reports that I could remember:
Burning iPhone on a PlaneIn November 2011, an iPhone 4 on a Regional Express flight in Australia began to glow and emit smoke. The attendants put out the fire and the phone was handed over to investigators. Apple was as keen to find out the cause as the Australian authorities (and presumably the owner).
A number of sources later covered the report of the analysis. Luke Hopewell on ZDNET, reported that an unauthorized repair left a screw in the phone which punctured the battery casing. That lead to a short circuit.
Exploding iPhone 5 in BangkokI followed this one fairly closely as it was in Bangkok and there was much coverage here, particularly with a news report from MCOT that is available on YouTube. Several local commentators also jumped in, at least at the beginning. With the earlier phone on the plane in mind, I had a careful look at the images and the main source of the heat, commenting on this in an article I wrote in a Cassandra column, "The Myth of an iPhone 5 and Spontaneous Combustion".
I also noted then that, despite a MCOT video on YouTube (Mass Communications Organization of Thailand) in which the reporter is quite gleeful on the apparent scoop she has, the only source that reported the outcome of the analysis (and then quite briefly) was the Bangkok Post as far as I can tell, even now, 2 months later.
The report of the analysis by Exponent of the damaged iPhone states that the event was "caused by a small screw found stuck under the device's battery tray". This was almost identical to the previous fire on the Australian plane; and like that event, the screw "penetrated into the phone's battery and caused a short circuit".
Apple has also been fairly low key on this event, so it may have been handled by the Singapore office. Also silent (now) is the giggly reporter from MCOT. We are still waiting for the NBTC to do their own checks, as if they will be able to come up with something better than Exponent. Also deafeningly silent is Suwicha Uasomsaksakul, the alleged victim, who denounced Apple at the time, declaring he would never buy another Apple product. He claims he bought it from a local carrier, but if that is the case there may be a number of questions that need to be asked there. Shrink-wrap is your friend.
Electrocutions in ChinaElectrocution is not a pleasant experience. While touching a bare wire on a domestic appliance (or a connector on a computer) may give a jolt, some situations cause the hand to grip more tightly, thus continuing the effect. Water is a conductor and this would make things worse.There are visible injuries, including burns to the skin, but also internal burning which can have long-term effects. With serious cases of electrocution, the heart may stop. With prompt medical assistance (a defibrillator) the victim may recover (Medscape).
When it was reported recently that a young woman in China had died from the effects of electrocution when using an iPhone, there was an immediate outcry which mattered little for facts initially, as long as "Apple" figured in the title.
The idea of Apple being at fault began to unravel fairly quickly as, once some facts were checked, it appeared the young lady had stepped out of a bath to answer the phone. Some articles also made the point that the images shown on TV in China did not appear to show an Apple charger. A screen shot of the device and charger is shown in an item by Jeremy Blum on South China Morning Post.
With the publicity for the death of the unfortunate young lady, Apple did offer its condolences and steps were taken to have the equipment examined. It is after all in the interests of Apple to make sure it is not producing faulty products; and there have been recalls (for example with Sony-supplied batteries for the MacBook Pro)
Also following the news of the young lady's death, it was found that a second person in China had been electrocuted when using an unauthorised charger with an iPhone 4 and was in a coma. Although I question the headline in of an article by Adam Pasick on Mashable, "Deadly Fake iPhone Charger Accidents Plague Thrifty Users" the information in the article is about right: false economy can kill. Other useful comments on the two accidents can be found in an article on Electronista, in which there are some perhaps useful comments on the causes.
To add to these reports, another appeared on CCTV within a couple of days of the others showing an iPhone 4 that had apparently "spontaneously combusted". Apple is also investigating this event.
CommentThere are a number of points that underline the importance of sticking with the manufacturer's equipment, even if the price is high. Electrical accessories are each designed for a specific job and an engineer helps design the component specifications needed. Jony Ive may have the last word on what an Apple device looks like on the outside, but Apple has a strong technical arm that will decide, for example, on the exact gauge of wire needed to carry the current as well as the design needs of the battery.
Charging a battery will always cause heat. At this intersection of chemistry and physics, the energy used excites the molecules in the battery and a result is that the battery warms up. There is nothing that you or I can do about it.
Things wear out. You can demonstrate this in less than 5 minutes with a metal paper-clip by bending it back and forth (feel the heat as it approaches break point). I have a couple of older chargers that are now past their use-by date. Even my iPhone 4S charger - almost two years old - is showing early signs of wear. The point where the cable meets the plastic housing is always a stress point.
This does not matter to many users - and not just with IT devices - as cheapest is best. I had a bitter experience with one of my motorbikes: a BMW K100 RS. A bearing on a fan broke and the blades began to hit the radiator. I was not able to buy an official BMW replacement for months and the short term replacement fan was not man enough for the task, so the bike overheated a number of times in Bangkok's traffic. Once the BMW fan was acquired all was cool and quiet again.
This type of unauthorised replacement is common, with those who like expensive toys but not the prices that come with the repairs. Be it BMW, Aston Martin or Apple, many users will cut corners, putting their machinery, or worse, at risk.
Not all accessories (nor repair shops) are created equal.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.
For further information, e-mail to