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Lithium Battery Factory Blaze in S Korea Claims 22 Lives

Twenty-two workers were killed in a fire that followed a series of explosions at a lithium battery factory just outside of Seoul, South Korea on Monday, with authorities not yet clear on what caused the disaster. 

Citing a local fire official, the Associated Press reported that the fire started when battery cells exploded inside the warehouse, though authorities are still investigating the cause of the explosion. 

The victims were reportedly foreign workers, the majority of whom are Chinese laborers. 

The blaze started at 10:30 a.m. local time and was extinguished in six hours, Reuters reports. 

"The fact that there were so many casualties when this was on only the second floor is because of the toxic materials and not so much because of burns," Reuters quoted Park Chul-wan at Seojeong University as saying. 

South Korea is a key producer of lithium-ion batteries and a leading exporter. The company, Aricell, manufactures lithium batteries for sensors and radio communication devices. 

Company executives can be held accountable, with prison terms, in South Korea for fatal industrial accidents based on new legislation passed two years ago, according to Reuters. 

Lithium-ion batteries are energy-dense, with highly flammable materials that could lead to fire, explosion, radiation, heat and chemical exposure. They can develop thermal runways that lead to high temperatures causing batteries to vent combustible gas or to ignite, though some experts argue that these occurrences are extremely rare. 

In February, a fire broke out in a warehouse storing lithium-ion batteries in southern France, causing no casualties, but requiring 70 firefighters to extinguish. 

In late May, the New York State Senate passed a legislative package to enhance safety standards for lithium-ion batteries following a series of public safety incidents. At the same time, the U.S. House approved legislation in May mandating federal safety standards for lithium-ion batteries to prevent fires.

By Charles Kennedy for Oilprice.com

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