In 2015, a man was hospitalized with critical injuries after his e-cigarette exploded in his face. Another victim suffered severe burns on his hands, a hole in his tongue, and knocked out teeth. Here’s why and how e-cigarettes can literally blow up on you, and what you can do to minimize your risk.
Admittedly, to say that e-cigarettes “explode” sounds over the top, but this video shows that something is clearly catching on fire. This concern over fire and consumer safety prompted the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) to conduct an investigation, which they published in late 2014, aptly titled Electronic Cigarette Fires and Explosions (PDF). The big caveat here is that their investigation rests on collected reports about e-cigarette accidents that occurred between 2009 and August 2014 (a total of 25).
The Battery In Your E-Cigarette Is The Big Problem
Most e-cigarettes are powered by a lithium-ion battery, and that’s where the fire danger comes from. Lithium-ion batteries are found everywhere, from our cell phones to our cameras to our hybrid cars. When you puff on an e-cig, a battery powers the heating element that then turns the chemical solution in the canister into a vapor. In other, more manual e-cigs, you have to press a switch to take a drag. Either way, a lithium-ion battery is involved.
We know that lithium-ion batteries can pose a fire hazard if left in certain pressurized areas, like the baggage compartment of a plane. In early 2015, the Federal Aviation Association prohibited e-cigs and other spare lithium-ion batteries from being kept in checked baggage. Under normal conditions though, the possibility of a lithium-ion battery failing is pretty darn low (about one in a million). In the rare instance it does, the USFA report explains:
During the typical failure mode for a lithium-ion battery, the electrolyte is heated to its boiling point, the internal pressure in the battery builds to a point where the seal at the end of the battery ruptures, and the pressure is abruptly released through the sealed end of the battery case.
However, the cylindrical design of e-cigs and its structurally weak end points make it a bigger fire risk.
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. In contrast to e-cigarettes, the cylindrical lithium-ion batteries used in laptop computers and portable tools are contained in rigid plastic cases that are generally strong enough to prevent the failing battery from “rocketing” away. Fires do occur as a result of battery failure, but most fires initially involve only the device that the battery pack is installed in.
In general, lithium-ion batteries cause problems when they’re overheated from outside heat sources (like direct sunlight), short circuits, or overcharging. In 20 of the 25 cited incidents in the USFA report, the battery malfunctioned while the e-cigarette was plugged into a USB port and recharging.
Normally, batteries have safety features to prevent short circuits and overcharging. However, e-cigarettes typically have a USB port that appears to be compatible with any USB cable and charger. People often assume that any charger will do, including manufacturer-approved ones and other non-sanctioned, third-party ones, as long as it fits and the device responds, but that’s not the case.
According to the USFA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), charging an e-cigarette with non-approved power adapters “could subject the battery to a higher voltage than is deemed safe” and increase the risk of overheating (called thermal runaway). During thermal runaway, the battery can melt, radiating lots of heat, and the electrolytes can reach a boiling point…and well, you can probably guess what could happen next.
How You Can Minimize the Risk of an E-Cig Meltdown
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently said they will regulate vaping. Although the emphasis is on the ingredients and packaging, the FDA’s expanded authority includes “components and parts”, including “certain batteries.”
The Federal Register confirms that the FDA has been concerned by reports of exploding e-cigarettes, and has provided a draft guidance on the safety requirements that companies will need to follow. For example, the FDA says that the product labeling should include text or a graphic to show users should recharge the product only with specified chargers to minimize the risk of battery failure. But as of right now, these guidelines haven’t been finalized yet.
In the meantime, you can keep yourself safe with a little more education. Most importantly, handle your e-cigarette batteries (or any lithium-ion battery, for that matter) with care. Here are a few key pointers:
- Stick with the manufacturer’s provided charger: Always use the charging appliance that comes with the unit and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. This way, you know the battery is compatible with the charger. Avoid leaving it connected to the charger overnight.
- Be careful about what you plug your e-cig into: Avoid plugging the e-cig into any old USB port. The manufacturer’s user manual usually includes technical specifications for the proper voltage.
- Buy from reputable companies and suppliers: There are a lot of homemade “mods”, or basically DIY, low-cost modifications of e-cigs. This isn’t exactly the safest way to go because homemade mods simply may not have the built-in safety mechanisms to prevent overheating.
- Check to see if the battery is “safe”: The battery shouldn’t be more powerful than what the device is designed for. Plus, there are different quality of batteries. Poorly manufactured, low-cost, counterfeit ones typically do not perform as well and would be more likely to have problems. Internet forums like this one in Planet of the Vapes often share information on product recalls, safety notices, and what batteries not to buy.
- Take care of your battery: The Ashtray blog (full disclosure, the blog is a subsidiary of a site that sells e-cigs) suggests that you clean the battery and terminal contents with tissue or alcohol wipes if it’s dirty. When you’re not using the e-cigarette, be sure to turn the battery off. Finally, they recommend that you don’t over tighten when attaching the battery to your clearomizer (the clear plastic or glass body of an e-cig if that’s the kind you have). If you suspect damage to your battery, get a new one or take it to an electronics service center for inspection.
In case a battery overheats, Battery University recommends moving the device away from other flammable objects (if it’s safe to handle) and placing it on a hard, non-combustible surface. If it’s even possible, remove the battery and let it “burn out” outdoors. If a fire occurs, grab a fire extinguisher (only if it’s a lithium-metal battery) or just use water or another non-alcoholic liquid (soda works!) to prevent the fire from spreading.
Not all battery failures can be prevented, but the likelihood of an e-cigarette battery failing is statistically low. Still, with the growing popularity of vaping (last count was more than 2.5 million Americans, according to the USFA report), it is a very real possibility. If you vape, vape with care.
Illustration by: Sam Woolley. Images by Ozont.