The Dark Side of Lighters

William B. Clemmer, a machinist from Stephenville, Texas was only 56 years old when he died. His last words, en route to a Dallas hospital, were: “My lighter exploded.”

Clemmer died on May 6, 2008 of severe burns over more than half of his body, 26 days after his MK lighter failed to extinguish and burst into flames in his pocket. Clemmer was at work on a Thursday in April, when he lit a cigarette, and placed the MK lighter in his pocket. Seconds later, the MK lighter exploded, engulfing his torso in flames. Although he was severely burned, he managed to call his brother, Ricky, who hurried over and drove him to the nearest fire station.

A quick-thinking employee, who later reported to work that day, snapped photos of the incident scene. He found the bay door to the machine shop wide open, signs of something burned and a lighter on the floor. Instinctively understanding that something was amiss, he captured the state of the workplace: charred remains of Clemmer’s clothing, the MK lighter, a single cigarette and a pack of Carnival cigarettes.

Today, the Clemmer family, through their lawyer Craig Sico, called on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to seek a recall of MK lighters, manufactured by the Chinese firm Zhuoye Lighter Company Ltd. and sold by the millions in the U.S. The Clemmers also asked the CPSC to bring the U.S. in line with other industrialized nations and implement a mandatory lighter safety standard, similar to the voluntary industry standard, which is already required in Canada and the European Union.

In 2006, the CPSC considered, but failed to take action on a request by the U.S. lighter industry trade group to make mandatory the voluntary standard American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) F400, first adopted in 1975.

Malfunctions from Cheap Imports

An expert examination of the MK lighter found both design and manufacturing defects that allowed debris on the globe seal, preventing the lighter from completely sealing its orifice. This allows gas to continue flowing – just enough to keep a flame burning that is too small to be seen behind the wind screen. In addition, a poorly manufactured metering pad can allow liquid butane to flow unevenly through the orifice. Over time, butane can pass through the orifice in liquid form instead of evaporating into ignitable gas. In the Clemmer incident, the MK lighter’s poorly manufactured globe seal and metering pad allowed the liquid to escape and seep into his clothing. The heat of his body caused the liquid butane to evaporate, which expanded its volume by about 60 times. Once the gas reached its flammable limits, it was ignited by the lighter’s small unextinguished flame.  It is notable that this particular lighter design also incorporates an adjustable flame device which has been abandoned by most major lighter manufacturers because of the additional explosion hazards they pose.

The results of this examination dovetail with research conducted by the CPSC as it weighed the adoption of a lighter safety standard. In 2006, the CPSC staff estimated that about 1 billion lighters are produced, domestically and abroad each year. In the U.S., imports account for more than 75 percent of the U.S. market, with Chinese-made lighters accounting for 58 percent of imports. The CPSC tested 92 different lighters collected at various retail outlets to assess their conformance to the voluntary standard. It found that the “inexpensive and disposable lighters had conformance rates at or below 40 percent. Among countries, lighters from China had the lowest conformance rate at 30 percent.”

The CPSC’s analysis of injuries and economic damage found that malfunctioning lighters cause about 917 injuries and $31 million in societal costs per year. Given the low per-unit cost of manufacturing disposable lighters, representatives of the U.S. trade group said that bringing sub-standard lighters into compliance with the voluntary standard would only cost manufacturers “a penny or two” per unit.

CPSC Declines to Regulate

In November 2001, as cheap imports flooded the market, the Lighter Association petitioned the CPSC to make mandatory ASTMF400. In a briefing package prepared for the Commission in April 2004, the staff noted , but nonetheless recommended that the CPSC deny the petition:

“Staff believes that the available data do not support a rulemaking proceeding, based primarily on the low risk of death or injury from lighter malfunctions, and uncertainty as to the level of voluntary standard conformance among lighters involved in the incidents.”

Nonetheless, then-Commissioners Hal Stratton and Thomas Moore voted 2-0 to overrule staff and publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on a safety standard for lighters. In April 2005, the ANPRM was published. A year later, the CPSC published a notice announcing its intention to extend the period for considering a new rule for another 12 months. In August 2006, the staff submitted a status report containing the results of their testing, the compliance costs and injury data, but still drew no firm conclusions:

“Based on market information on lighters, weighted estimates of conformance with ASTM

F-400 for lighters sold in the U.S. in 2005 range from 55 percent to 58 percent. Although estimated annual societal costs associated with lighter malfunctions total $3 1 million, benefits that might be achieved by a mandatory standard based on the provisions of ASTM F-400 are uncertain.”

The commission took no action, and the rulemaking died.

The current U.S. lighter safety standard only addresses a lighter’s child-resistance, and the CPSC has decided to settle for recalling malfunctioning lighters. The agency has recalled cigarette lighters for failing to self-extinguish at least five since 1988, the most recent in 2000.

Clemmer Case Attracts Other Complaints

The Clemmer family filed a civil action against the Zhuoye Lighter Company and settled its claims against the company’s American subsidiary. The family’s case against the Chinese company is still pending. Meanwhile, news of the lawsuit spurred four other people to contact the family’s attorneys, Sico, White, Hoelscher & Braugh, a Corpus Christi, Texas law firm, to relate their own near-misses and injuries with an MK lighter that failed to extinguish.

Robert McKellip, 48, of Las Vegas Nevada, suffered third-degree burns from his fingertips to his elbow, after an MK lighter exploded in his hand. In April 2008, Mr. McKellip was packing away the contents of his travel trailer in an unlighted storage unit, when he attempted to light a candle on the dining table. He struck the lighter and observed a six-inch flame shoot out of the lighter’s orifice, followed by an explosion as he held the lighter in his right hand. The flames ignited the sleeve of his shirt, which melted onto his arm. Mr. McKellip grabbed a towel, doused it with some water and wrapped his injured arm to extinguish the fire. Despite intense pain, he bicycled a quarter of a mile to his mother’s house, where she summoned emergency medical services. Mr. McKellip’s burns required an 18-day hospital stay. He sustained permanent nerve damage and still suffers pain from his injuries.

The Clemmer family maintains that if the MK lighter had met the industry standard, it would not have ignited in William Clemmer’s pocket.

“A cheap, disposable lighter killed my brother,” Ricky Clemmer said in a news release. “The CPSC had a chance as far back as 2001 to make sure that these imports were safe, and they didn’t take action. Now is the time to fix it. Recall these dangerous lighters and set minimum safety standards so that others don’t have to suffer from these preventable tragedies.”