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Shipping lithium battery items still not so easy

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – The U.S. Postal Service may have lifted its ban on shipping electronics containing lithium batteries, but personnel in Europe still cannot ship those items off the Continent through the military postal system, according to overseas military postal officials.

Bill Kiser, U.S. European Command’s theater postal officer, said Thursday that there also is no guarantee that items containing lithium batteries mailed to the Continent through USPS will reach their recipients.

In a service update posted on its website last week, USPS said a change in policy would allow “specific quantities of lithium batteries — when installed in the equipment they are intended to operate — to be sent to many international destinations, including APO (Army Post Office), FPO (Fleet Post Office) and DPO (Diplomatic Post Office) locations when permitted by the destination or host country.”

The last clause is key. Not all destinations and host countries have lifted their own bans on shipping lithium batteries by air, bans that went into effect in May following safety guidelines issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Universal Postal Union amid concerns about fire hazard. Those guidelines now have been updated.

According to Peter Graeve, a management analyst at the Military Postal Service Agency in Arlington, Va., the countries of the Universal Postal Union came to an agreement that if national postal systems completed training on hazardous materials handling, they could lift the prohibition on the mailing of items containing lithium batteries.

“The U.S. has completed that, so they’re able to mail out,” Graeve said. “Other countries have not.”

As of Thursday afternoon, France and Germany were the only two countries Graeve was aware of that were maintaining the restrictions. “But I haven’t heard anything about what’s going on in the Pacific,” he said.

Graeve added that airlines may also maintain restrictions on carrying items containing the batteries, “and since we put mail on some of these planes to move around … if they’re not accepting lithium batteries, that could affect how the mail runs there, too.”

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Stars and Stripes reported earlier, citing a USPS statement, that the end of the ban would allow overseas residents to mail electronic items containing the batteries.

However, overseas military officials said Thursday that on-base post offices in Europe still will not accept packages containing electronics with lithium batteries.

With the U.S. lifting the ban, American planes now can carry products with lithium batteries, even into European airports.  “But once it hits an international airport, there’s no telling what’ll happen,” Kiser said.

Some European air carriers won’t accept packages containing lithium batteries, Kiser said. If a package requires a transfer to get to its destination, it can’t go on a European plane and might get stuck where it is, he said.

The only guaranteed way to ensure European delivery of products containing lithium batteries through the U.S. Postal Service, said Kiser, is to ship packages by surface mail — in other words, by ships and trucks. It takes longer, he said, but surface vehicles don’t have the same restrictions as planes.

The problem with that option, he said, is with online retailers such as Amazon.com, “because I never have seen that option pop up for shipping.”

millhamm@estripes.osd.mil
 

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