The Fire Hazard Hiding Inside Your Kitchen Junk Drawer

published Jul 16, 2023
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Someone holding open a white junk drawer. Inside is messy, unorganized
Credit: Joe Lingeman

Have you ever thought about the proper way to store batteries? If you’re like me, probably not. They go in a drawer, right? If someone had told me a few months ago that I should tape my batteries, I would have assumed I misunderstood. Tape them? Why? So kids won’t lick them on a dare? But then, my dear friend’s house caught fire, and I quickly learned more than I wanted to know about this common junk drawer hazard.

The fire started in my friend’s Ridwell recycling bin, when a spent 9-volt battery came in contact with a spent AAA battery, creating a short circuit and ultimately catching their garage on fire. As she learned, simply taping the terminals of the batteries would have saved my friend and her family the loss of their possessions, the headache of fighting with insurance over every reimbursement, and displacement from their home for the next nine months. But, like me, my friend had never heard of taping batteries. 

She soon discovered the directive in fine print everywhere, including Ridwell’s website. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends taping terminals or placing batteries individually in plastic bags to prevent fires. I wondered if taping would make the batteries difficult to recycle, but Poison Control assures that taping batteries “will not affect the ability of the battery to be recycled.” 

Once I knew the source of my friend’s fire, I pulled my battery bag out of my recycling bin and began taping all the ends. Then I moved on to the — now-horrifying — battery box I kept in the kitchen, where all my new batteries were stored loosely. Despite my fear, the idea of taping the ends of dozens of unspent batteries still felt overwhelming. 

I opted for purchasing this battery organizer to keep all the terminals separate instead. The organizer stores the batteries upright (another recommendation I was unaware of) and far from anything conductive, including junk drawer occupants such as paper clips, pens, or coins. Fires can happen with new batteries or even with batteries with very little charge left in them, so it’s important to store them properly both before and after they’re used. 

Credit: Meg Asby

Even after I had organized them, I called the National Fire Protection Association to assess how concerned I should be about battery safety. Was this just a freak accident? Or should I buy battery organizers and electrical tape for my entire extended family? (Happy holidays — you’re safer!) I learned that 9-volt batteries are especially important to store properly, as the positive and negative terminals are on the same side, making it easier to create a short circuit when they come in contact with anything conductive, as happened in my friend’s garage. (Ironically, 9-volt batteries are also what saved my friend and her family from the fire — they powered the smoke alarms that alerted them to the danger.) 

Now I tape batteries the way I wear a seatbelt or put on a life jacket — as a common sense way of reducing risk. I just wish I’d learned it from an article instead of the fire in my friend’s home. This way, hopefully you can.