Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, vape pens, or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), were first widely introduced to the U.S. market in 2007. Since then, the popularity of e-cigarettes has grown dramatically—and continues to expand at an incredible pace. It is estimated that, as of 2015, there were 2,750,000 e-cigarette smokers in the United States and sales of e-cigarette devices and accessories exceed $2.8 billion.

Much concern has been expressed by various medical associations, including by the American Medical Association (AMA), about the rapidly growing popularity of e-cigarettes among young high school and college-aged people. The primary medical concern that has been expressed has focused on the harmful and addictive high levels of nicotine and other substances being inhaled from e-cigarettes. Yet, a far more immediate and dangerous threat from the use of e-cigarettes is causing serious and permanent traumatic injuries.

Electronic cigarettes are exploding and burning with an alarming frequency, causing serious third-degree burn injuries, loss of body parts such as eyes, tongues, and teeth, and permanent disability and scarring. The e-cigarettes are exploding when the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are sold with the e-cigarettes fail, undergo thermal runaway and, essentially, explode like a pipe bomb.

ANATOMY OF AN E-CIGARETTE

A typical vape pen/e-cigarette is comprised of three primary parts, a mouth piece, a cylindrical “mod” in which the battery is placed, and a battery.

Common E-Cigarettes

Figure 1 shows examples of e-cigarettes sold commonly throughout the United States. Figure 2 demonstrates the parts of a typical e-cigarette.

Anatomy of an e-cigarette

The arrows and points in Figure 2 show what is also called the mod. 

Additional examples of the portion of the e-cigarette that houses the battery—called a mod—are demonstrated in Figure 3. 

E-Cigarette Mouth Piece

What is referred to as the mouthpiece in Figure 2 may be an RDA (Rebuildable Dripping Atomizer) or an RBA (Rebuildable Atomizer). The RDA actually drips a solution, or juice, onto a coil, which heats and atomizes the liquid into a vapor. The RBA uses a tank to hold the liquid prior to being converted into vapor by the coil. An Example of an RDA/RBA is shown in Figure 4.

Battery operated e-cigarette

When activated, the battery in an e-cigarette discharges current to a coil which heats the e-liquid into a vapor.

The batteries that are being sold for use in e-cigarettes are almost always re-chargeable lithium-ion batteries. These are shaped like a typical AA alkaline battery. They do not incorporate safeguards to prevent overcharging or overheating. Without safeguards in the battery and e-cigarette, a battery that begins to overheat will ignite into a fire and/or explode. This is called thermal runaway. These batteries are placed into the cylindrical mod, which is a closed system. It is a virtual pipe bomb waiting to be detonated.

When the lithium-ion battery fails and overheats into a thermal runaway, pressure quickly builds inside the mod until, finally, the fire and heat pressure causes the mod to explode—often in close proximity to the body or face of the user. The U.S. Fire Administration in 2017 estimated that there have been 195 separate incidents of explosion and fire reported by the U.S. media between 2009 and December 31, 2016. However, in a recent study published in August 2018, it was found that there were 2,035 incidents of explosion and burn injuries presented to U.S. Emergency Departments between 2015 and 2017. This is much higher than the number of media reported incidents. This rapid year over year rise in injuries from exploding e-cigarettes is alarming. No agency in the United States has issued regulations governing e-cigarette batteries. Although the FDA’s authority in 2016 was extended to include all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and although the Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) has authority to regulate e-cigarette batteries, there are still no regulations governing these batteries.

In April of 2018, in response to the growing danger of e-cigarette explosions and fires, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) with Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) approved ANSI/UL 8139—a national Standard for Electrical Systems of Electronic Cigarettes and Vaping Devices. ANSI/UL 8139 offers specific requirements for improving electrical system protections and safeguards for e-cigarettes.

Some of the new requirements include:

  • Requiring that the batteries comply with UL 1642 – the standard for lithium batteries.
  • Requiring the chargers to comply with already accepted standards in use for information technology equipment, audio/video, communication equipment, and class 2 power units and extra-low voltage outputs.
  • Requiring that e-cigarettes incorporate a venting mechanism that channels the pressure wave in the direction where harm is minimized.
  • Requiring that the batteries and devices be protected against overcharge, over discharge, and short circuit conditions and be able to withstand single fault conditions without resulting in fire or rupture.

There are other important standards in ANSI/UL 8139 that, when followed, will reduce significantly the dangers of e-cigarette use.

The dangers of e-cigarette use continues, however. Vape shops are still selling unprotected lithium-ion batteries for use with e-cigarettes. Specifically, vape shops are selling batteries labeled as 18650, 3,000 mAh lithium-ion batteries. Figure 5 depicts commonly sold batteries for e-cigarettes. 

E-cigarette batteries

These batteries currently do not have built-in protections against thermal runaway, fire or rupture. Similarly, many, many types of e-cigarettes do not have adequate protection against short circuit or thermal runaway in the electrical system utilized.

What can be done to increase the safety of e-cigarettes? There are some steps that, if taken nationwide, can reduce the risk of explosion and fire during e-cigarette use. First, utilize a standard AA or AAA alkaline battery. While not re-chargeable, these batteries pose less risk of thermal runaway. Second, importers and retailers who distribute and sell to the public e-cigarettes and their accessories, including batteries, should only distribute and sell ANSI/UL 8139 compliant products. Third, specific thorough and complete instructions and warnings should be prominent and provided with the e-cigarette. Fourth, the current practice of selling unprotected batteries with unprotected or inadequately protected e-cigarette electrical systems should end. Finally, the Center for Tobacco Products needs to establish regulation of e-cigarettes and e-cigarette batteries to require compliance with ANSI/UL 8139.

The rapid growth in the sale and use of all types of ENDS, including the e-cigarette configuration depicted above, shows no sign of abating. With more effective regulation and public awareness, the decision to vape will no longer unwittingly expose the user to a life-changing explosion and fire.

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Steve Weston has 28 years of experience representing people who suffer from serious injuries. He has significant experience helping victims and families affected by automobile and truck accidents, gas explosions, defective products, unsafe premises and many other causes of injury.