Continental Airlines has attributed a fire on board one of its Boeing 737-800 aircraft to a passenger’s lithium battery-powered air purifier, an incident which has prompted the purifier’s distributor to halt sales of the device.

Flight CO1065, operating the Houston-Portland route, diverted to Colorado Springs after the personal device – which is designed to be worn around the neck – set fire to an aircraft seat.

Four flight attendants and a passenger were taken to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation following the 15 December incident.

US distributor EcoQuest International, which supplies the purifier, branded the ‘Fresh Air Buddy’, had previously admitted to clients that 0.01% of its units had experienced a “rare problem”.

The company attributed this either to faulty lithium batteries or to the use of non-rechargeable lithium batteries which had been recharged.

Just a day before the Continental Airlines incident, EcoQuest publicly stated that the purifier was safe to use as long as customers did not attempt to recharge non-rechargeable batteries and install them in the device.

“In light of an incident over the weekend involving a ‘Fresh Air Buddy’ that resulted in an aircraft returning to the airport, we have decided to suspend the sale of the ‘Buddy’ indefinitely,” says EcoQuest.

Los Angeles-based Wein Products manufactures the purifier and the batteries. EcoQuest adds that it has advised customers to discontinue using the equipment immediately until the cause of the problem has been established and a solution developed with Wein.

US FAA regulators have previously highlighted the potential fire risk posed by non-rechargeable lithium batteries, and two years ago issued a ban on shipping them as freight on passenger flights – although the FAA continues to permit their use in passengers’ personal equipment.