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Exploding E-Cigs: Health Risks You Didn't Expect

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Recently, an Owensboro man learned what was so hot about the e-cigarette trend.

You might have seen the dramatic video on the Evansville news, or even on CNN, where the story was picked up and became national news: an e-cigarette device igniting inside the pocket of his pants, giving him second-degree burns. His story, unfortunately, isn't rare or unusual.

Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, or e-cigs, have been around since 2008, and are promoted as a healthier alternative to traditional tobacco products. Some e-cigarettes resemble their paper-and-tobacco counterparts, while others deliver their shot of nicotine via a device called a vape pen. These devices work by heating a liquid containing nicotine into a vapor, which users inhale. The heating element is powered by lithium-ion batteries, and while the healthfulness of electronic cigarettes is still open to debate, the batteries used within them present a very real danger.

Lithium-Ion Batteries in E-Cigs

The batteries used in e-cigarettes aren't brand-new technology - lithium-ion batteries have been in use commercially since the early 1990s, and are common in many of the electronics that we use daily. Cell phones, laptops, cameras, cordless power tools, and many other electronic devices rely on the long-lasting power of lithium-ion batteries, and these batteries are safe for use provided they are properly cared for. Lithium-ion batteries charge more quickly and do not develop a discharge memory like Nickel-Cadmium (NiCad) batteries, making them popular for devices that need a consistent and enduring power supply.

Batteries generate their power through an electrochemical reaction, and it is this reaction that can render a lithium-ion battery unstable if it does not receive proper care.

Vape Pen Design Flaws, Shoddy Construction

Why do the batteries in electronic cigarettes seem to explode more often than those found in cell phones or laptops? Part of the answer lies in the design of many devices; their cylindrical shape can help to focus the energy of a failing battery, creating pressure that builds quickly and ruptures the device, typically at the end.

Another part of the answer comes in the manufacturing of the batteries themselves. While the batteries used in electronic cigarettes are a common size and type manufactured by numerous companies around the world, there is a difference in how some of these batteries are made.There are three devices that can be built into a battery at time of manufacture which serve to protect it from failure: automatic reset of a battery if it overheats, disruption of current if it is over-charged, or a printed circuit board that prevents over-discharge, over-current, or over-charging. Batteries made with all three of these devices are known as "protected," while anything less is considered "unprotected." Most batteries used in e-cigarettes are unprotected - missing critical fail-safes, and running afoul of the voluntary industry standards of UL 1642 and IEC 62133.

Protecting Yourself from Exploding E-Cigs

If you choose to use e-cigarettes over traditional tobacco, you may be trading one set of health hazards for another. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has up to this point not regulated the e-cigarette industry to the extent that they oversee the tobacco industry, but changes may be on the way. In the meantime, you will want to protect yourself from the possibility of an exploding device.

Precautions you should take include:

  • Always use the charger specifically designed for your device
  • Never leave a charging battery unattended
  • Remove your device from the charger as soon as it has completed charging
  • Don't let loose batteries come in contact with metal (such as coins) or with each other
  • Use the proper size battery for your device
  • Don't expose your battery to heat

Additionally, the US Department of Transportation recently issued a flight safety rule regarding electronic cigarettes. As of October 2015, passengers on commercial airline flights can no longer pack e-cigarette devices into their checked luggage and are prohibited from charging these devices or their batteries in flight. Passengers may bring their devices into the cabin area on their person or in their carry-on luggage, but cannot use the devices in flight, a rule that is in line with traditional tobacco. This rule stems directly from the fire hazard created by lithium-ion batteries in electronic cigarette devices.

Many people choose the electronic cigarette route as a way to quit smoking, only to find that the devices themselves can be hazardous to their health. If you or a loved one have been injured by a defective e-cigarette device, you may benefit from speaking with an attorney to determine your legal rights. An attorney experienced in products liability cases can examine the facts of your case and help you to preserve your legal rights.

For help in quitting smoking, visit Smokefree.gov or contact the CDC at 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

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