New U.S. Postal Service (USPS) rules banning shipments of lithium batteries to and from APO, FPO, DPO and other international addresses will make it much more difficult for U.S. troops, retirees and federal civilians overseas to obtain mobile phones, laptop computers, watches, cameras and other items that use the batteries.
The ban, which took effect May 16, responds to new standards developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Universal Postal Union (UPU). It applies regardless of quantity, size or watt hours, and regardless of whether the batteries are packed in the equipment they’re meant to power.
USPS officials had little to say about the change. “To be in compliance with [international] requirements, we had to put this prohibition into effect,” said Postal Service spokeswoman Susan McGowan. “I cannot answer the ‘why’ question. Once they say there’s a new regulation, we have to follow it.”
In a May 17 statement, the Military Postal Service Agency (MPSA), which oversees mail going to and from the U.S. military’s overseas locations, said the new international rules ban lithium batteries in mail carried on international commercial air transportation.
“In keeping with these requirements, the USPS and the Military Postal Service must [prohibit] the shipment of lithium metal or lithium-ion batteries to and from APO, FPO and DPO locations,” the statement said.
What It Means for Customers
Customers mailing electronic devices with removable lithium batteries must remove them before the devices can be mailed to or from overseas locations. Electronic equipment with nonremovable lithium batteries cannot be mailed, MPSA officials said.
This means that for now, patrons of the military exchanges’ online and mail-order catalogs won’t be able to order products containing lithium batteries bound for international destinations, said Judd Anstey, spokesman for the U.S. Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which manages the catalogs and online store for all the services.
“The Exchange understands the necessity of these items, and remains committed to identifying transportation solutions that will facilitate shipment of products containing lithium batteries to international customers,” he said.
In 2011, the online store sold $9 million worth of products containing lithium batteries through www.shopmyexchange.com.
Brick-and-mortar exchanges overseas do not use USPS or MPSA to transport products, so the ban will not affect shipments of products containing lithium batteries to those stores.
Naval Supply Systems Command, which oversees the U.S. Navy’s postal operations, has issued guidance to the fleet, noting that postal clerks have been directed to question patrons and check customs labels for declarations of lithium batteries or electronic equipment. Patrons either must remove the batteries or not mail the package.
Lithium batteries have raised safety concerns in recent years because of their potential to overheat. The ban appears to be tied to changes approved in February by the International Civil Aviation Organization’s dangerous goods panel.
The USPS anticipates that as of Jan. 1, customers will be able to mail specific quantities of lithium batteries to and from overseas locations if they are properly installed in their devices, based on revised rules issued by the panel.
USPS officials had no comment on the reasons for implementing a ban seven and a half months before a partial rollback is expected.
But George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association, said the issue goes back to 2007, when the USPS issued rules authorizing lithium batteries to be shipped to overseas addresses, including APO, FPO and DPO.
“That was actually inconsistent with UPU conventions and ICAO technical instructions,” he said.
Last year and again this year, the UPU asked the ICAO to amend the rules to allow lithium batteries to be shipped by mail under certain restrictions. Those changes were approved, but with an effective date of next January.
Meanwhile, the USPS became concerned about its own looser rules that it had followed since 2007, and decided to immediately get in line with ICAO’s revised technical policy, Kerchner said.
That concern may have been spurred, at least in part, by a law signed in February by President Barack Obama requiring the U.S. Transportation Department to line up its regulations on lithium batteries with ICAO policy.
John Couch, the owner of ShipitAPO, said the whole situation is a “shocker.” ShipItAPO is a Quincy, Mass., company that specializes in re-shipping items to U.S. troops overseas from vendors who refuse to ship to APO/FPO addresses.
“It seems like this decision was made in a vacuum,” he said. “It was done very quietly. I haven’t seen any discussion or heard any chatter about it. It was a shock to us, and it’s going to be an even bigger shock to the troops.”
FedEx will continue to accept consumer electronics containing lithium batteries of less than 100 watts for shipment overseas, spokeswoman Sally Davenport said.
But the company can’t ship to APO or FPO addresses, only to specific locations — for example, a specific battalion at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, she said.
Details on shipping lithium items are on FedEx’s website at http://images.fedex.com/us/packaging/guides/BatteryShipments_fxcom.pdf.
Davenport acknowledged that this shipping method is more expensive than USPS. The FedEx website has a calculator that can estimate shipping rates based on destination.
DHL spokesman Robert Mintz said his company can accept and handle lithium battery shipments subject to the regulations, if the shipments have been properly labeled and prepared and are sent by pre-approved customers with DHL accounts.
But as with FedEx, DHL can’t ship to APO or FPO addresses. DHL must have the name of the base, city, country, additional identifying information such as building number or barracks number, a contact name and phone number, and if possible, an email address.
A rough estimate of the book-rate charge of sending a 3-pound laptop from Seattle to Germany is $116.56, Mintz said, and a rough estimate from Seattle to Afghanistan is $148.53.
Couch estimates half the packages he ships contain electronics, with most likely containing lithium batteries.
“What doesn’t use lithium batteries these days?” he said.
Military Times staff writer Jon Anderson contributed to this story.