The e-cigarette industry markets vape products as a safer alternative to smoking conventional tobacco cigarettes, but for the hundreds of people injured and maimed by exploding e-cigarettes each year, the devices turned out to be anything but safe.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, the “combination of an electronic cigarette and a lithium-ion battery is a new and unique hazard.” The administration says, “It is likely that the number of incidents and injuries will continue to increase” as vaping becomes increasingly popular.
What are e-cigarettes?
The e-cigarette was developed by the Chinese company Golden Dragon Group Ltd. in 2003, but the concept of electronic cigarettes didn’t catch on in the United States until late 2007. The devices first appeared as novelties, but sales climbed slowly but steadily as a multitude of manufacturers vied for a share of the market and consumers took more interest in the products.
In 2010, the e-cigarette industry made about $100 million in sales. In 2012, e-cigarettes were pulling in about five times that much, and by 2013 the industry surpassed the $1 billion mark – a clear signal that the devices were here to stay. With the introduction of JUUL e-cigarettes in 2015, the e-cigarette industry rocketed to become a $5 billion industry.
E-cigarettes are composed of three main components: The atomizer, which contains a heating element to vaporize the liquid contents of the cartridge, which is the second part of the e-cigarette. The third part of an e-cigarette is the rechargeable lithium-ion battery that powers the device.
Lithium-ion batteries and e-cigarette explosions
As far as electronic devices go, e-cigarettes are overheating and exploding at unusually high rates. These explosions are the result of some malfunction in the powerful lithium-ion batteries used to power the devices. Explosions can occur when the battery is inside the device, on a charger, or when it’s tucked away loosely in a pocket or purse.
The e-cigarette industry is often quick to blame the consumer for an e-cigarette explosion or fire, claiming, for instance, that the lithium-ion batteries were incompatible with the e-cigarette or charger or that they were improperly handled.
The heart of the matter, however, is that e-cigarette batteries are extremely volatile and inherently dangerous. A simple error – whether on the part of the manufacturer, the vape shop, or the consumer –can turn a small cylindrical battery into bomb.
E-cigarette battery explosions can be triggered by a manufacturer defect, damage, incompatible charger, incompatible e-cigarette, or contact with other metal objects.
Are e-cigarette explosions ‘isolated incidents?’
Researchers are finding that e-cigarette explosions and the burn and blast injuries they cause are not isolated incidents like the vape industry often claims.
A recent study by Texas and Virginia researchers published in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control showed that e-cigarette injuries are drastically underreported across the country. Analyzing data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the study’s authors concluded there were about 2.035 e-cigarette explosions resulting burn injuries in U.S. hospital emergency rooms between 2015 and 2017 – 40 times the number of incidents from 2009-2006 reported in July 2017 by the U.S. Fire Administration. The Fire Administration’s numbers included only e-cigarette explosions reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).
ER doctors and burn center physicians have reported seeing multiple patients with e-cigarette burn and blast injuries in recent years. However, there is no tracking system or centralized database to record the number of e-cigarette injuries in the U.S., so the information must be estimated using existing data.
Types of injury
The shape and construction of electronic cigarettes can make them behave like “flaming rockets” when the lithium-ion battery fails, and can contribute to the type of injury. Many explosions related to e-cigarettes are also caused by spare batteries loosely stored in a pocket or purse.
Other factors contributing to the type and severity of e-cigarette explosion injuries are whether the device was in a pocket or actively being used at the time, such as in the person’s hand or mouth.
The Tobacco Control study found that e-cigarette burn injury patients were primarily young white males with a median age of 26.
Most e-cigarette injuries serious enough to require hospitalization are second- and third-degree burns to the legs and thigh and genitals. Hands and fingers were the second most-affected parts of the body, with 26 percent of the burn injuries occurring there.
Many e-cigarette explosions have caused severe head and facial trauma. In addition to thermal burns and lacerations caused by shrapnel, facial injuries include loss of eyes, teeth and tongue.
In a study published in the Journal of Burn Care and Research, researchers recommended monitoring victims of e-cigarette explosion for chemical and metal toxicity caused by exposure to elements of the lithium-ion battery. The study authors said patients with e-cigarette blast burns should be checked for elevated levels of lithium, cobalt and manganese, and treated accordingly.
E-cigarette explosion deaths
There have been at least two deaths caused by exploding e-cigarettes in the U.S. In May 2018, 38-year-old Tallmadge D’Elia of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suffered “multiple injuries to his face,” including a “projectile wound of the head” that medical examiners said caused his death. An autopsy found two fragments of the e-cigarette lodged in his brain. Mr. D’Elia also suffered burns on about 80 percent of his body.
In February 2019, 24-year-old William Brown of Fort Worth, Texas, didn’t even make it out of the vape shop parking lot when his newly purchased e-cigarette exploded in his face. Mr. William staggered out of his car after the blast and was rushed to the hospital where he died shortly after. Medical examiners found fragments of the e-cigarette had penetrated his skull, brain and neck, and severed his carotid artery.
E-cigarette explosion lawsuits
We are currently investigating cases involving severe injuries caused by exploding e-cigarette devices and exploding e-cigarette batteries. These explosions have been linked to faulty e-cigarette products, defective lithium-ion batteries, and insufficient warnings for users. With few regulations to ensure their safety, e-cigarette devices have been aggressively marketed and sold in stores throughout the United States. Contact William Sutton in our Toxic Torts Section to discuss your claim.