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E-Cigarette Explosions

No smoking electronic cigarette in the office

Exploding E-Cigarettes Can Injure Users Seriously, Cause Fires

Electronic cigarettes came on the market only recently, heralded as healthier, safer alternatives for cigarette smokers wanting to quit smoking. Instead of cancer-causing smoke, lung-coating tar, and the thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke, smokers were told they could inhale vapors from nicotine-containing liquids that come in many flavors, and which are heated up inside the electronic cigarettes.

Well, if you can get past the artificial flavors and colors present in most e-cigarette vaporizing liquids, which are chemicals that may prove toxic over time — or which are known to be linked to cancer — and assuming that these nicotine fluids are kept out of the reach of young children, who may be poisoned by them, electronic cigarettes pose another set of dangers that regular cigarettes do not. We are referring to the more than two dozen cases that have been reported in the American news media in the last several years, of people who were seriously injured and/or whose property was destroyed, when batteries inside the e-cigarettes exploded.

Statistically speaking, the number of such events is small, compared to the many people who are now using e-cigarettes. However, they are still additional possible perils to consider for people who are now “vapers.”

A Few Facts About E-Cigarettes

The following facts are from a report published online by the United States Fire Administration, a division of FEMA:

  • E-cigarettes were first patented in 2003 and have been sold in the United States since 2007
  • The number and selection of products have grown at an extremely fast rate in the last few years, which has spurred their popularity. By January 2014, 466 brands of e-cigarettes were available on the market, and 7,764 different flavors; hundreds of new flavors are added every month (Zhu, et al)
  • By 2014, annual e-cigarette sales in the U.S. had reached $2.5 billion
  • As of July 2014, 2.5 million Americans smoked e-cigarettes (Statistic Brain)

The following is a list of some of the more serious or notable events, from the two dozen-plus reported in the U.S. (Sources: U.S. Fire Administration, Mother Jones, local news media.)

  • February 2012: In Niceville, Florida, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran was smoking an e-cigarette, which exploded in his face; the explosion knocked out teeth and cut part of his tongue. A fire chief stated that the event was most likely caused by a faulty lithium battery
  • April 2012, Muskogee, Oklahoma: A woman bought an NJoy e-cigarette from Walmart. She stated that the electronic cigarette exploded as she tried to take it out of the package; it sounded like a gun being fired, she said
  • March 2013, Corona, California: A woman and her husband were driving to the airport, with their VapCigs e-cigarette charging in the car. The woman stated that she saw the cigarette’s battery “dripping,” at which time she tried to remove it. The battery started “shooting fire” toward her, then exploded. Hot metal pieces were forcefully thrust onto her lap; she suffered second-degree burns
  • June 2013, Tulsa, Oklahoma: A man was using his laptop’s USB port to charge his e-cigarette. The laptop and a nearby lamp caught on fire
  • July 2013, Sherman, Texas: A man was charging his e-cigarette in the USB port of a Macbook. After about two hours of charging, the battery exploded and “shot across the room.” The man suffered second- and third-degree burns. Both he and his wife were treated for smoke inhalation
  • September 2013, Mount Pleasant, Utah: A mom was charging her e-cigarette in her car. Suddenly, there was a loud noise, a flash of light, and smoke everywhere. The woman said the e-cigarette released its hot copper heating coil, which fell on her son’s car seat and burned the boy. She used an iced coffee to put out the fire on her dashboard. A fire marshal stated that the woman’s charger was “factory-issued” and the event constituted a failure of the device
  • September 2013, Atlanta, Georgia: A woman was using her computer’s USB port to charge her e-cigarette. The cigarette began to “shoot four-foot flames across the living room.” She used a rag to unplug the burning cigarette. She felt fortunate to have been home, fearing that she might have lost her house and her pets if she hadn’t been
  • November 2013, Kootenai County, Idaho: A family of four slept while an electronic cigarette was charging through a laptop in the living room. The cigarette overheated and exploded; the family credited their smoke alarm, which went off, with saving their lives
  • January 2014, Sneads Ferry, North Carolina: A man who worked as a firefighter for 20 years received facial burns and damage to one eye from the heat of an e-cigarette he had recently purchased, and was smoking, when it exploded near his face. The man described the heat from the explosion as feeling like “a bunch of hot oil” hit his face
  • March 2015, Santa Ana, California: A man suffered flash burns to his face and hand, as well as cuts to his hand, when the modified e-cigarette that he was smoking exploded near his face. The man stated that the cigarette started making a humming sound, at which point he quickly pulled it away from his face; the cigarette then exploded. The explosion sent shrapnel flying through the room and lit his bed on fire

No fatalities have been reported in the U.S.; but in Merseyside, England, a 62-year-old man died after the e-cigarette he was charging exploded, igniting the oxygen tube of an oxygen concentrator that he may have been using. Fire investigators concluded that the victim might have been using a different charger from the one supplied by the e-cigarette manufacturer.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, most incidents like the ones described above — 80 percent — occur while batteries are charging; however, as we’ve seen, explosions can also happen while the e-cigarette is being used, or even when it’s idle. Most explosions that took place during charging occurred when the chargers or USB ports being used were different from the ones that came with the cigarettes. But in a few cases, the cigarettes exploded while being charged with their corresponding equipment.

Precautions that All E-Cigarette Users Need to Take

Fire authorities note that vapers should take several important precautions, including the following:

  • Always use chargers and adapters that are supplied by the manufacturer with the e-cigarette you purchase
  • Follow manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations
  • Buy all electrical goods, including e-cigarettes, from reputable sellers
  • Never mix parts of different e-cigarettes
  • Never leave electrical items, including e-cigarettes, charging overnight or leave items unattended for too long while charging

Why USB Ports and “Universal” Chargers Not Supplied by E-Cigarette Maker Can Pose Danger of Explosion/Fire

Most people don’t know that when it comes to power adapters and USB ports, different models or brands can vary greatly in how much current (rate of flow of electrons) and voltage (“force” pushing the electrons) they can provide. So, it could prove a dangerous mistake to assume that any adapter or port that “fits” will be able to safely charge an e-cigarette.

If you subject the cigarette battery to higher current than is safe, you may cause a situation where the plastic film that separates positive from negative charges inside the battery, a film which is filled with a catalyst fluid, will melt and act as a source of combustion, while the fluid may boil, causing the pressure within the battery to increase to the point that the top seal of the battery comes off in an explosive manner. The explosion may break into pieces both the battery and the e-cigarette, potentially causing injury and burns, and it may ignite the catalyst fluid, which is flammable, possibly starting fires.

Consumer safety advocates have called on makers of e-cigarettes to discontinue USB-type electrical connections in their cigarettes, which would make it less likely, though not impossible, for users to overcharge batteries. Additionally, battery makers continue to work to make batteries safer; currently, non-flammable battery fluids are being tested.

By Cynthia Sanchez. A graduate of the University of Washington, Cynthia has extensive experience writing about health and wellness topics for different media.

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