As the e-cigarette market grew in popularity, so did calls for oversight and regulation following reports from across the country of e-cigs exploding or catching fire.
From January 2015 to January 2016, scientists from the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products have identified 66 reports of e-cigs overheating, catching fire or exploding.
Dr. Carl Schulman of the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Burn Center said those numbers are probably only scratching the surface of what has become a new phenomenon.
"Locally we’ve seen several patients in the last couple of months who have had burns from electronic cigarettes, particularly exploding and catching fire in their clothing," said Shulman. "If it is just in their clothing, and they are not using it, then their clothing is catching fire and they are get a bad flame burn where that is, and our two patients actually needed surgery for their burns and if they are actually using it at the time it explodes there have been some reports of actual explosions so they get a blast injury and they catch fire."
The stories are harrowing. There’s a woman in New York who suffered third-degree burns to her leg after an e-cig caught fire in her pocket while driving; and dramatic surveillance video at a Kentucky gas station caught the moment an e-cig sparked and burst into flames in a customer’s pocket.
In the case of Florida resident Evan Spahlinger, the e-cig he was using exploded. His Fort Lauderdale-based attorney, John Uustal said it burst “into flames in his face, causing him to inhale flames, smoke, and scorching hot air,” and forced him into a medically-induced coma, Uustal filed a product liability lawsuit against Vaping American Made Products LLC, a foreign limited liability company; and Naples, Florida-based Vaping Station LLC.
Company owners and representatives never responded to repeated requests from Local 10 News for a statement about the pending lawsuit.
Uustal said for his client, the explosion and subsequent injuries were like “a nightmare”.
Spahlinger suffered from severe burns on his face and neck with severe internal injuries to his lungs, esophagus and mouth. Luckily Spahlinger survived and is now recovering from his injuries. “I was shocked knowing how burned he was, how good he looks,” said Uustal. “It is a miracle.”
He believes manufacturers and retailers have failed to adequately warn consumers of the potential safety risks and product design defects, “when you buy an e-cigarette nobody says you might be blowing your face off so you must be very careful.”
What is causing e-cig batteries to explode?
According to a 2014 U.S. Fire Administration report most incidents of e-cigs exploding or catching fire occurred while the battery was charging.
“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,” explained the report. “Using power sources not approved by the manufacturer to recharge a lithium-ion battery can result in an explosion and fire.”
“It is a relatively new phenomenon. I guess it is in the same trend as all the lithium-ion battery-type devices that are sometimes catching fire and exploding and we are seeing that with e-cigarettes as well,” said Dr. Schulman. “Don't interchange the devices. Some of these injuries have occurred because people are using different batteries and different chargers and that is causing electrical problems and they are catching fire and exploding.”
“The device has no ventilation,” explained Uustal. “You think about a hoverboard catching fire that's not great, it is a bad situation, but if you put that in a small cylinder that has only two weak ends, one of those ends is going to blow off if the battery explodes and one of those ends is pointed at someone's face.”
The 2014 U.S. Fire Administration report goes on to say the devices’ lithium-ion batteries can fail, and noted a need for continued improvements in battery safety designs.
“If the person designing this e-cigarette cared at all for the safety of the user,” said Uustal; “there would be ventilation in the battery compartment, there would be a weak spot on the end that's facing away from the user so that if something went wrong it would explode out.”
The 2014 report also noted that, “no regulation, code or law applies to the safety of the electronics or batteries in e-cigarettes. While many consumer products are required to be tested by a nationally recognized test laboratory, such as UL, there are no requirements that e-cigarettes be subjected to product safety testing.”
In the vacuum of that regulatory oversight, sales of e-cigs soared.
NEW FEDERAL OVERSIGHT:
In May of 2016, the FDA finalized a rule to extend its regulatory power over e-cigs.
They will be looking at the ingredients, marketing and product design.
A recent FDA/CDC survey found e-cig use by high school kids is up a whopping 900% since 2011.
FDA/CDC Recent Survey
E-cig use amount high school students up 900% since 2011.
Before this month’s move by the FDA, there was no federal law prohibiting retailers from selling e-cigs to minors.
Now you will have to be 18 years old and prove it with a photo ID in order to buy an e-cigarette.
An FDA spokesman tells Local 10 News that new rule takes effect this August.
“We have more to do to help protect Americans from the dangers of tobacco and nicotine, especially our youth. As cigarette smoking among those under 18 has fallen, the use of other nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, has taken a drastic leap. All of this is creating a new generation of Americans who are at risk of addiction,” said HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell.
While Uustal thinks the new regulations are a step in the right direction, he believes those who make and sell e-cigs should have done more to warn consumers of the potential safety risks and should be held accountable for failures in product safety testing.
“These devices are prone to explode even if the user does everything right,” Uustal told the Call Christina team. “If you are designing a device that with a lithium-ion battery that might explode; and create a flaming rocket right into someone's face you have a certain responsibility when you are making money off these products, to include safety measures. It is not a question of if they are going to get burned, and the day is coming when the first person is going to die and we can prevent that and so we should.”
The Department of Transportation recently banned the devices from carry-on luggage due to the potential safety risk.
“We know from recent incidents that e-cigarettes in checked bags can catch fire during transport,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Fire hazards in flight are particularly dangerous. Banning e-cigarettes from checked bags is a prudent safety measure.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation banned e-cigarettes from checked baggage Thursday.
Passengers and crewmembers will also be prohibited "from charging these devices and their batteries on board the aircraft. However, these devices may continue to be carried in carry-on baggage."
"Fire hazards in flight are particularly dangerous, and a number of recent incidents have shown that e-cigarettes in checked bags can catch fire during transport," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "Banning e-cigarettes from checked bags is a prudent and important safety measure."
One industry trade publication states it has created a list of media reported e-cigarette explosions. To date eCig One states it has found 173 e-cig explosion reports. According to their analysis: Of the 173 e-cigarette explosions:
- 47 e-cigarette explosions happened during use.
- 73 e-cigarette explosions happened during charging.
- 30 e-cigarette explosions happened during transport, storage or unknown circumstances.
- 23 e-cigarette explosions involved spare batteries for removable battery mods.