London - On first examination the small white plug that arrived in bubble wrap in the post appeared perfectly innocuous.
Hundreds of thousands of devices much like it are currently plugged into sockets in offices, children’s bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens around the country, powering up mobile phones — of which 30 million are sold in the UK each year.
But the bang that resounded, with a puff of black smoke, moments after new mother Katie Vines plugged this device into her bedroom wall was anything but harmless.
So powerful was the explosion, that the charger actually split in two and left a large, sooty circle around the socket.
This wasn’t a one-off, however: it would go on to happen a second time with an identical device. The thought of what could have been still makes care assistant Katie, who lives in Bristol with partner Chris Smitherman and their 19-month-old daughter Aimee, shudder.
The incident, last November, has taken on particularly chilling significance since it emerged that a fire that killed three generations of one family last month, including a nine-week-old baby, was probably caused by a faulty charger.
The blaze started in the living room and swept through the terrace home in Sheffield overnight on April 28, killing brothers Adyan Parwaiz Kayani, nine, and Amaan Parwaiz Kayani, seven, their baby sister Minahil, aunt Anum Parwaiz, 20, and grandmother Shabina Begum, 53.
Such was the extent of the damage that it may be many weeks before fire investigators are able to confirm what caused the blaze, or even what type of charger was in use. But a spokesman for South Yorkshire Police said that “the most probable cause” of the fatal fire was an “electrical fault involving a faulty charging device”.
The tragedy highlights growing concerns about the dangers that may be hidden behind the casing of that ubiquitous charger in the wall.
While the chargers which are supplied with branded electronic goods are made to the highest standard and are no cause for concern, it’s cheap, unauthorised, “unbranded” chargers — the type usually bought on the internet, from market stalls or abroad, rather than from reputable shops and suppliers — that can be hazardous.
Product safety manager Steve Curtler warns: “It’s driven by demand. People want multiple chargers to keep their lives going, one for home, one to take on holiday . . . When you can see one for £5 it seems worth taking the risk — at least that’s how it seems at the time.”
Unsafe devices are often made in China for as little as 3p. There have even been allegations that manufacturers may submit well-engineered products for testing, only to remove non-essential components to reduce costs — thereby increasing the risk of disastrous malfunctions.
With an estimated 1.8 million mains mobile phone chargers bought online in the UK each year, safety experts are concerned that thousands of lives are being put at risk.
The evidence speaks for itself: last year, air stewardess Ma Ailun, 23, was electrocuted at home in China when she answered her iPhone while it was charging. In 2007, seven-year-old Connor O’Keefe, from South-East London, died playing with his Game Boy — he had been using a cheap, unbranded charger his family had bought on holiday in Thailand.
He was electrocuted and found dead in his hotel room. Tests revealed the charger had “serious defects”.
His mother, Patsy, said: “Until this happened to me, I would never have thought twice about buying a charger online. But you don’t have to go to a foreign country to get a dodgy plug, you can get them here, or get them sent here.”
Indeed you can. While mains plugs for the iPhone cost £15 from the Apple store, add in a USB cable and you’re looking at another £15. More generic USB mains chargers at Carphone Warehouse sell for £17.99 and Nokia small-pin chargers are £14.99.
But venture online and there are all manner of deals to be found. An iPhone 5 mains adaptor can be picked up for as little as £3.69. For less than £5 you can also add an in-car charger. The same goes for devices which are compatible with Samsung, BlackBerry and Nokia phones.
It was this price discrepancy that drove Katie Vines, 33, to buy a cheap charger online last year. Her branded iPhone charger had broken and she wanted to buy a replacement.
“Aimee was only about three months old and I was on maternity leave, so we didn’t have a great deal of income,” she says. “The branded products were quite expensive, so I decided to look online and found a charger being sold for about £4. The seller had good ratings and seemed to be in the UK, so I decided to buy it.”
When the charger arrived, it looked entirely safe. Katie thought nothing of popping it into her bedroom wall, a few feet from her daughter’s cot, attaching her phone, and walking into the bathroom, leaving partner Chris changing their baby’s nappy.
“I’d only just got to the bathroom when I heard a huge bang and ran back into the bedroom,” says Katie. “The charger had exploded and was practically fused to the wall.”
Putting the experience down to bad luck, Katie contacted the seller, who apologised and dispatched a replacement charger. She was stunned when exactly the same thing happened. This time, it was in her living room wall and the plug itself blew apart.
“I was naive buying something off the internet because it was cheap. I thought if it had happened once, it wouldn’t happen again. But the damage could have been so much worse.
“As soon as I heard about the house fire in Sheffield I thought: ‘That could have been us.’ When I think that Aimee’s cot was near the socket I used, it makes me sick.”
The Mail found multiple reports from around the country of house fires being attributed to an issue with a mobile phone battery or charging device in the last month alone.
Only days ago, mother-of-two Julie Swift, of Bearsted, in Kent, was woken by a flash and a “bang” from her mobile. She had been charging it with a cheap plug purchased online while she lay sleeping in bed.
While the explosion tripped all the electrics in the house, fortunately it caused no damage.
“I still charge my phone overnight now, but only with an official Apple charger and not near my head,” says Julie, 48. “I feel very lucky that this happened to me and not to my 12-year-old daughter.”
Fire chiefs confirm that the problem is growing. Meanwhile, European rules governing reduction of electrical waste have seen many manufacturers now selling new phones with only a USB cable, which are used to charge via your computer, and no traditional wall plug. This, say experts, will only make people seek out cheap plug-in alternatives all the more.
Last year, it emerged that the UK had seen a six-fold increase in the number of counterfeit electrical goods seized over the previous four years. And the value of such goods seized by councils and the Border Force rose from just over £2.6-million in 2009 to over £15.7-million in 2012. The most-seized items were chargers. Some 67 000 potentially dangerous mobile chargers were uncovered in a single raid by Trading Standards officers in Ealing, West London, last year.
So what can go wrong to make a charger blow up?
Unfortunately, most faults are not visible to the buyer, but instead involve the internal components. For example, the device may lack a suitable fuse to ensure that if something else on the phone fails, such as the battery, it safely contains any power surge or explosion.
Steve Curtler says dodgy devices often lack this. This means that if the charger overheats, pressure will build, blowing the charger apart, creating a risk of fire and electric shock.
Cheaper products are often found to have pins that are too small or incorrectly placed. If they are the wrong size, they can damage the socket and lead to overheating. Even without a naked flame, a charger can ignite under extreme heat, which is why fire safety experts stress that chargers should never be covered.
By law, pins must be 9.5mm away from the edge of the charger body. If the distance is less — as it was with nine out of ten chargers in a recent sample test — there is a very real risk of electric shock from skin contact.
As a consumer you might like to think that a CE mark — a declaration by the manufacturer that the product meets requirements of European law — means your product is safe. Sadly, this can be all too easily faked.
And many mobile phone users leave their devices charging overnight. Is this safe? While Apple insists its devices are designed so ‘you can keep your device plugged in as long as you would like’, Steve Curtler still advises caution. ‘It does extend the risk unnecessarily. And the risk is exacerbated by using a cheap, unbranded charger. And when you are asleep you are less alert and less able to react.’
He says if you must leave your phone charging overnight, make sure you have a working smoke detector.
Similarly you should switch your power off at the wall if you leave your charger plugged in when not in use.
Simple tips — but as Katie Vines knows only too well, they could be life-saving.
So what do fire safety experts say consumers should do to stay safe?