E-cigarettes can explode. How to prevent tragedies from happening.
By Maria Verven
Man loses eye. Woman loses teeth. Teen hospitalized after his e-cigarette explodes.
Exploding e-cigarettes are becoming headline news. And in an industry already under fire and soon to come under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) draconian regulations, these headlines aren’t doing our industry any favors.
On the one hand, science keeps giving us ample evidence that e-cigarettes (personal vaporizers or mods) are significantly safer than smoking. Even the highly respected Royal College of Physicians has endorsed e-cigarettes as a substitute for smoking, asserting that vaping is likely to generate “significant health gains in the U.K.” (Also see “Mind the gap,” page xx.)
And the number of e-cigarette users has risen dramatically; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the smoking rate among U.S. adults fell to 15 percent last year—the biggest one-year decline in more than 20 years. The reason for the drop is most likely because many people went beyond the headlines and made an intelligent choice between smoking and vaping.
But on the other hand, a growing number of people perceive e-cigarettes to be just as harmful as or even worse than cigarettes. A STAT-Harvard poll released last October reported that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of adults in the U.S. believe e-cigarettes are harmful to the health of people who use them. In a 2010 poll, by contrast, most smokers (85 percent) said they believed e-cigarettes were less dangerous than traditional cigarettes.
The public perception of vaping is clearly going in the wrong direction. Due to headlines like the above, there could easily be hundreds of thousands of smokers too afraid of an explosion to make the switch.
Why e-cigarettes explode
E-cigarettes are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which contain electrolytes. When overheated, this type of battery can spontaneously combust. While these batteries are also used in cellphones and laptops, these devices don’t pull as much current as do e-cigarettes, so there have been very few incidents. Besides, they’re not objects of a much-maligned and grossly misunderstood industry like the e-cigarette industry.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, fires and explosions from e-cigarettes are rare, especially considering the number of users. Their 2014 report cited 25 e-cigarette incidents between 2009 and August 2014, resulting in nine injuries and two serious burns. However, by the time of their 2014 report, an estimated 2.5 million Americans were using e-cigarettes or personal vaporizers.
The vast majority of e-cigarette explosions happen while the batteries are charging—usually because the user is charging the device with an “alternate” device and not the one designed for it. Only 20 percent of incidents happened when the user was vaping or when the e-cigarette was in their pocket or hand.
“The shape and construction of e-cigarettes can make them more likely than other products with lithium-ion batteries to behave like ‘flaming rockets’ when a battery fails,” the Fire Administration report stated.
Despite this, industry experts assert that these products don’t pose a risk when used correctly.
“When used and charged properly, e-cigarettes pose no more of a fire risk than other products that use lithium-ion batteries,” said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association.
“While these incidents are taken very seriously, millions of former smokers continue to use these products as intended. Proper care and safety dictate that people use the correct type of charger and follow manufacturer guidelines,” stated the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA).
“Education of the customer is probably the most important thing we can have to make sure the customer understands what they could do wrong to make the product dangerous,” said Spike Babaian of Vape NY in an interview with Good Morning America.
A quick safety guide
Media reports don’t tend to cover why or how these devices exploded, devoting attention to the more sensational aspects of the victim’s injuries.
While there’s very little argument that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes, users do take risks when they tamper with or modify their devices.
Some e-cigarette models and makes are more potentially hazardous than others, but most people would be surprised at which ones are more likely to explode. The majority of cases actually involved rechargeable cigalikes and not mods or personal vaporizers.
Cigalikes often have a built-in USB port to charge the device. Most often made in China, their poor-quality electronic designs and components rarely if ever undergo quality testing. Users run the risk of overcharging the battery, which can ultimately cause the system to fail and the battery to explode.
Here are five guidelines for proper use:
- Buy from a reputable manufacturer. Ideally, stick with a device made in the U.S. The reason is simple: Quality standards are practically nonexistent in China. While more expensive, U.S.-made devices are subjected to much more rigorous quality testing.
- Follow battery guidelines for usage, storage and charging. Do not use incompatible batteries and chargers; only use the battery charger and power adapter that come with the battery. Don’t plug your device into computers or other USB-capable devices.
- The best and safest devices use batteries that can be removed from the unit when charging. Batteries can also vent when in your pocket or purse and can quickly short out and cause a fire. Store your battery in a storage container and don’t leave a battery near metal objects.
- Don’t stack multiple batteries. The e-cigarette mod explosions have involved units with two batteries stacked for higher voltage. Ensure your unit has both electronic and physical safety features built in.
- Protect the device from extreme temperatures such as excessive heat or cold, and don’t get the unit or battery wet. Avoid dropping the device or putting the battery in contact with metal objects such as coins, keys or jewelry.
- Don’t overcharge the battery or leave it plugged in unattended when you’re asleep or away from the home. While the chargers have a cutoff and are supposed to stop charging when fully charged, they’re made in China, where, again, there is a lack of quality control. If the cutoff circuit fails, the battery will overcharge.
Is higher power always better?
Some vapers and “cloud chasers” like to push the limit in order to satisfy their desire to create large plumes of vapor. But in modifying their devices, they take extra risks. The SFATA implores consumers to consult with established resellers to ensure proper configuration. Reconfigurations such as multiple batteries and coils can tax a battery’s capacity and cause the battery to “vent” or overheat.
“If you notice your battery getting hot or swelling, get it out of the mod to break the circuit and get it away from you,” said industry expert Nick “Grimm” Green. “A warm battery or mod is the first sign that something is not right.”
Even ProVape, the largest vapor hardware company in the U.S. and maker of the ProVari, does not support devices with multiple batteries. “Any device that stacks two or three batteries is a big safety risk,” said David Flagg, ProVape CEO.
“ProVape makes larger, single-battery devices that are both safe and satisfying. The average user doesn’t need 100+ watts to get off of cigarettes,” he said. “The first ProVari was a 12-watt device that successfully helped over 400,000 people get off of cigarettes.”
Flagg said that anytime you have 150 watts near your mouth, there’s much higher risk of a faulty component, especially when the product is from China, where there’s little to no quality control. “They may claim their product is 150 watts but when it’s tested, it’s producing much less power. The battery label may state that it’s a 1,500mAh when it’s really only 900mAh.”
When multiple cells become unbalanced, one battery can start overcharging the other cells and cause a thermal runaway. In short, a single-cell device is always going to be the safest.
Flagg said ProVape also doesn’t sell higher-power devices (100+ watts). Not only is such power unnecessary, according the firm, but it is also less safe. “This high power level can overstress batteries and overheat e-liquids, which could release more chemicals,” said Flagg.
Designed by aerospace and military engineers to the highest standards, and made in the U.S., ProVaris are subjected to at least three months of rigorous quality testing before they’re allowed to go on the market, according to Flagg. Each individual unit is inspected more than 20 times before shipping.
What the future holds
The biggest unknown is how device manufacturers will be able to comply with the FDA’s regulations for the e-cigarette industry issued in May. Unless the grandfather date is changed, any device made before Feb. 15, 2007, will have to be subjected to an arduous and prohibitively expensive (for most) premarket tobacco product application (PMTA) with no guarantee of FDA approval.
The FDA’s regulations specifically recommend that manufacturers include plans for addressing the likelihood of use and foreseeable misuse leading to overheating, fire and explosion during operations, charging, storage and transportation for distribution.
Plus, if the aerosolizing apparatus includes the battery, the FDA recommends that amperage and battery mAh rating, battery type, voltage output, and testing certificates for the battery be included in the PMTA.
Temperature control at this point is only temperature “guessing,” Flagg said. “If the device is not properly controlling temperature, you may be overheating or cracking the e-liquid in a higher-power device, causing further harm.”
“People who switch from tobacco cigarettes to [personal vaporizers] shouldn’t have to worry about their safety,” Flagg said.