E(xploding) Cigarettes

A Kalamazoo man is the latest vaper who turned to electronic cigarettes as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes and wound up with serious burns. According to an April 1 news account:  “Took a couple of puffs off of it, had it between my fingers, looked down and my hand was on fire," said the man. "The whole thing just completely exploded. You don't know when they're going to explode, maybe some of them don't, I don't know, but they told me luckily I did not have it in my mouth because it would have put my eye out."

As the popularity of electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigs) grows, the debate over the relative health risks of inhaling the vapors of electronic cigarettes is now matched by the controversy over their safety as a delivery device.  Introduced in 2003, and marketed in the U.S. in 2007, there are now roughly 466 brands of e-cigs offering at least 7,764 flavors. It’s an estimated $2.5 billion market supported by 2.5 million e-cigarette smokers. And increasingly, there are news reports of the devices exploding in users’ pockets, in their hands and in their mouths, resulting in severe burn injuries and lost teeth and eyes.

A 2014 U.S. Fire Administration report on electronic cigarettes relying on media reports to determine the scope of the problem only tallied 25 fire incidents tied to the devices between 2009 and 2014. One industry trade publication using the same method gathered about 151 incidents that mostly occurred in the U.S., with 88 resulting in injury or death This is surely an undercount. No public agency collects data on e-cig burns, injuries or explosions.. The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a survey of injuries seen at a nationwide sampling of emergency departments does not code for e-cigarette burn injuries, nor does the National Fire Incident Reporting System code for e-cigarette-related fires. The Food and Drug Administration has reportedly received about 70 consumer complaints on e-cigarettes, including three for burns. The U.S. Consumer Product Commission’s saferproducts.gov website has collected but one consumer complaint.

The Complex World of Vaping  

At its essence, an electronic cigarette delivers a cloud of vapor by heating a solution of propylene glycol and/or glycerin, mixed with nicotine and/or other flavorings. The parts of the delivery device consist of a mouthpiece, a cartridge or “tank” that holds the liquid, an atomizer, which heats the liquid and to create the vapor, a microprocessor, and sometimes a switch to control the heating element and a battery. Some e-cigs have an LED at the tip to simulate the glow of a cigarette. Ranging from $30 to $300, the devices themselves are also varied: cigalikes, sub-ohm vapers, mechanical mods, digital mods, disposable devices, rechargeable devices, variable wattage devices, variable voltage devices, those with fixed batteries and those with removable batteries – each promising the user convenience, a better vapor, stronger flavor, more control or some combination of these features.

The choices are so wide that there are long tutorials on vaping websites walking new users through the process, along with detailed safety instructions. Take, for example, sub-ohm vaping – these are devices that use an atomizer with a coil with a resistance value of less than 1.0 ohms, “to increase the power output of fixed voltage devices like mechanical vape mods and non-variable regulated devices to create more vapor or flavor,” according to the website www.misthub.com. “Although it might sound simple it's actually a complex and often controversial topic within the vaping community Sub-ohm vaping evolved as a way to increase power to the coils beyond what the safe capacity of regulated devices available at the time. Today high power regulated devices are widely available can deliver a consistent amount of power to the coils allowing you to use the resistance of your choosing and the ability to adjust it to your liking while potentially out-performing the capacity of even a sub-ohm build on a mechanical vape mod. While low power regulated devices remain best suited for resistances above 1ohm.” Got that?

And here are the accompanying safety warnings:

“To ensure safe performance you will want to always make sure you keep your mechanical vape mod clean. This includes all threads, vent holes, contacts, and the switch. If using a spring loaded switch be sure to take notice of how stiff it feels, if over time your spring seems to be getting softer or feels easier to press it is beginning to “sag” or wear out and needs replaced before it fails. If you are going to replace your spring in your switch you should strongly consider upgrading to magnets. You will also want to be sure that you use your mods locking mechanism when it is not in use. When selecting a mechanical mod for sub-ohm vaping there are a few things to consider. You will want to select a mod that is well vented. These vents allow heat to escape from normal use but also allow gases to vent in case of battery failure. You can't have too many or too large of vents for your mod. NEVER USE AN UNVENTED MOD TO VAPE SUB-OHM. You will also want a vape mod with low voltage drop. Voltage drop is the amount of voltage lost when the electricity travels from your battery through your device and to your coils. For this reason the most preferred are mods that feature a single piece tube, fixed position contacts, and magnetic switch. Spring loaded or threaded contacts, multiple piece tubes, or telescoping tubes might be convenient but will raise voltage drop. While spring loaded switches can wear out quickly or fail.”

This sounds like more like a science project than a cigarette.

Causes of Explosions

Given the electronic nuances of different e-cig configurations, there appear to be several explosion scenarios. The U.S. Fire Administration report noted that 80 percent of the explosions it identified occurred while the device was charging and attributed the failures to lithium-ion batteries, which have been known to fail in laptops, and more recently and notoriously, in Hoverboards. In addition, the narrow cylindrical shape of e-cigs with tapered ends may contribute to catastrophic events: “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.”

E-cigs use a common lithium-ion (li-ion) battery cell called the 18650, a little larger than an AA battery, often used in series or a matrix for power tools and laptops, and manufactured by companies ranging from Duracell to unknown brands made in China. Li-ion batteries are “protected” or “unprotected.” There are three types of protection devices that automatically re-set the battery if it overheats, or disrupt the current during over-charging, or use a printed circuit board to prevent over discharge, over charge and over current. The unprotected batteries only use two of the protective strategies, while protected batteries employ all three. Not surprisingly, most 18650 batteries used in e-cigarettes are unprotected, and the attendant battery failures appear to be those that don’t meet the voluntary industry standards of UL 1642 and IEC 62133.

Trade publication eCig One’s analysis of the 151 e-cig explosions that have made the news found that 41 occurred while in use; 69 occurred while the battery was being charged; 25 occurred during transport or storage and 16 involved the removable batteries outside of the device..

These explosions might be caused by a mismatch between the charger and the device; In addition, loose batteries can short and discharge if the terminals make contact with other metallic objects, like change or keys. eCig One warns:

Most mechanical mods offer little to no safety protection, and some e-cigarette explosions have resulted from their misuse. Your battery might have a short because of a damaged wrapper. Your rebuildable atomizer might have a short because one of the leads came loose. Your battery might be over-drained because you forgot to charge it. Your battery might be over-stressed because the atomizer resistance is too low and you didn’t check it with an ohm meter or because the seller exaggerated the battery’s capabilities. The list goes on and on — and any one of these scenarios could possibly lead to battery failure. Most mechanical mods protect you from none of them. Use mechanical mods only if you understand and know how to mitigate their risks.

Regulatory Desert

E-cigarettes are as yet only lightly regulated. The Federal Food and Drug Administration, which currently has the authority to regulate cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco, is in the process of claiming jurisdiction over e-cigarettes. In April 2014, the agency published a proposed rule. In October the FDA sent its Final Rule to the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for final review, but it has not yet been released. And the FDA proposal only covers the health risks as they relate to a tobacco product, and does not address the electronic nature of the device.

In the meantime, President Obama signed in January the first law regulating the packaging of e-cigarette liquids. The Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act requires liquid nicotine refill containers to have child-resistant packaging.  The law excludes products without nicotine or with sealed cartridges.

In October, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an Interim Final Rule prohibiting e-cigarettes in checked baggage and charging them while on board the aircraft. The rulemaking cited two incidents, one in August 2014 at Boston’s Logan Airport, and one in January 2015 at Los Angeles International Airport. In the former case, an e-cigarette in a passenger’s checked bag caused a fire in the cargo hold that forced an evacuation of the plane. (The LAX incident occurred in the baggage area of the airport.)  The PHMSA moved to codify a ban after the FAA issued a safety advisory that January that identified e-cigarettes in checked baggage as an emerging safety risk.

With so many e-cig options and so little regulatory oversight, it appears the explosions are likely to continue and proliferate.