Since last October, burn and trauma experts at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle have treated 4 patients who sustained face and hand injuries when the e-cigarette devices they were using exploded. Officials say the horrifying incidents are part of a small national trend.
One of those injured was 24 year old Daniel Pickett, who was forced to undergo 5 surgeries and skin grafts from forearm to elbow to repair the wounds he sustained when his e-cigarette exploded. Pickett’s attorney told the Seattle Times his client was driving down a street in Central Washington last December when the device made an odd noise. Said Robert Sealby who plans to represent Pickett in a lawsuit:
“He noticed a static-y sound. Literally, half a second later, it vented, or exploded. It just really tore the heck out of his hand and arm.”
Pickett was initially rushed to a local hospital, but was then airlifted to Seattle. The young man, a former waiter, doesn’t know whether he will ever regain use of his right hand.
Harborview physician Elisha Brownson says these devastating explosions are occurring far more frequently than most people realize.
When used properly, e-cigarettes are no more of a fire risk than laptops and cellphones, according to Gregory Conley of the American Vaping Association (VPA). But when e-cigarettes do blow up in people’s faces (literally), they often do catastrophic damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) identified 25 cases of electronic cigarette explosions in the U.S. between 2009 and 2014.
Pickett’s injuries, while terrible, are minor in comparison to that of a Colorado man who in November broke his neck, lost some teeth, and suffered burns and facial fractures when his vaping device exploded. In January, a 15 year old boy from California lost a dozen teeth in an e-cig explosion, and a Tennessee teen was severely burned when a vaping pen caught fire in his pocket.
No government agency officially tracks the number of e-cigarette and vape pen incidents, but Lawrence McKenna Junior of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) says reports keep rolling in.
Dr. Brownson says:
“I realized that this was something that was happening more frequently than we had previously recognized. I just think that if people really knew this could explode in your face, they would consider twice putting a device like this to their mouth.”
Fire experts say this small but dangerous trend is caused by the devices’ lithium-ion battery which heats an aerosol cartridge to release the vapor that is then inhaled.
Virtually any device using these batteries can experience problems if the batteries become damaged or are subjected to extreme temperatures. Lithium batteries can overheat, catch fire, and explode if a device short-circuits. The problem is more likely to occur when cheaply made devices are used.
Many e-cigarette and vape pen users modify their devices and can find advice on how to do so from any number of websites. The industry trade group notes hacked and modified devices can pose a safety risk.
Mr. Conley says:
“When charged and used under proper conditions, vapor products pose no more of a fire risk than cellphones and laptops that use similar lithium-ion batteries. However, when vapor products are subjected to extreme conditions or used with unwrapped or damaged batteries, shorts can occur.”
However, according to the US Fire Administration (USFA), e-cigarettes may be especially vulnerable to battery failure. About 80% of the reported incidents occurred while the batteries were being charged.
In a report, the USFA said:
“When the battery seal (at the end of the battery) ruptures, the pressure within the e-cigarette cylinder builds quickly and instantly ruptures, usually at the end. As a result of the battery and container failure, one or the other, or both, can be propelled across the room like a bullet or small rocket.”
If you use an e-cigarette or vape pen, the odds are in your favor. You’re probably not going to wind up in the hospital because it exploded in your face. But there are steps you can take to cut your risk even more:
- Use the right type of battery
- Don’t modify your device
- Make sure any device you buy has a battery management system to prevent shorts and thermal runaway.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.