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Following dozens of reports of devices that have combusted, over-heated, or caught fire, the FDA has finally announced that it will take action to address e-cigarette safety concerns.

E-cigarettes were first introduced into the market in 2007, and have been gaining in popularity as an alternative to regular cigarette smoking. An e-cigarette is an electrical device with a cartridge or tank where liquid nicotine is stored, an atomizer which is the heating element, and a lithium-ion battery.

e-cigarette

According to the Associated Press, 66 e-cigarette explosions were identified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015 and early 2016. Last year the FDA announced that it would begin to require makers of e-cigarettes to submit their devices and ingredients for review. The agency recently announced that it will conduct a two-day public meeting this year in April, hosting scientific and medical experts, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, government agencies, academic researchers and public health organizations to “gather information and stimulate discussion” about e-cigarette battery safety concerns.

The U. S. Fire Administration (USFA) found 25 e-cigarette injuries between 2009 and 2014, and noted in its report that 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. While damage in most cases of exploding cigarettes is relatively local, explosions can sometimes spread to fire and create damage and injury to people and places nearby. With faulty batteries and negligent use, some e-cigarettes have exploded in user’s hands, pockets and mouth, resulting in burns.

“It’s literally an explosion, a super-hot explosion,” said Dr. Anne Wagner of the University of Colorado Hospital (UCH) Burn Center, where they treated six people injured by e-cigarettes in just the first three months of 2016. “We’re seeing deep third-degree burns and almost all of them require skin grafts and these grafts leave a significant scar.”

“We initially thought this was a rare event, but this is increasing in frequency,” said Dr. Elisha Brownson, a trauma and burn critical-care fellow at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The burn unit at Harborview in 2015 reported treating one e-cigarette-related injury a month. “We’re seeing significant tissue injury as well as damage to the mouth or the hands and the tendons,” Dr. Brownson said. “It basically combines a flame burn and a tissue blast injury.”

E-cigarettes use lithium-ion batteries because they are able to store large amounts of energy in a compact amount of space. However, lithium-ion batteries when poorly designed with low-quality materials, manufacturing defects, or improper use have the capacity to spontaneously ignite and explode.

With MODs or Personal Vaporizers, many people use batteries that have wrappers that may be ripped or torn, causing the devices to ignite either in use or in storage, such as in a pocket. The majority of cases of exploding e-cigarettes, however, happen with rechargeable vape pens, also called “twists,” and not from MODs where the battery completely disconnects from the device allowing it to charge separately, away from the tank and atomizer.  According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 80% of e-cigarette explosions happen with vape pens during charging, and the cause is often linked to the use of an alternative charger that was not sold with the battery that was charging.

Lithium-ion Batteries Prone to Explosion with Overcharging

Vape pens often have a built-in USB port, which allows the user to plug in the whole device. They are designed to be recharged using a USB port built into the e-cigarette and a power adapter supplied with the device. According to FEMA, using a power adapter or charger “not supplied by the manufacturer, such as a computer USB port, may subject the battery to higher current than is safe, leading to thermal runaway that results in an explosion and/or fire.” Without knowing the specific electrical specifications of an alternative USB power source or the battery, an effective or safe charge cannot be guaranteed. Overcharging a lithium-ion battery or subjecting it to overheating can also weaken it, making it prone to later spontaneously ignite and explode in use or when stored.

Here are a few simple precautions to lower your risk of an e-cigarette explosion:

  • Know your brand and buy from a reputable source, preferably an American brand.
  • Only charge with the charger and power adapter that comes with the battery.
  • Do not plug into computers or other USB ports.
  • Use a device that has a battery you remove from the atomizer to charge.
  • Never overcharge the battery and do not leave it plugged in unattended when you are asleep or away from home.
  • Store your batteries in a case, not in your pocket or purse next to metallic objects like keys or coins.

While you can’t always protect yourself from faulty devices, you can use these tips to lessen the chance of your smoke turning into a fiery disaster.

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