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Why e-cigarettes are exploding

Some e-cigarette users are seeing their devices go up in smoke.

There have been numerous local media reports of exploding electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, in recent months from devices exploding in users’ pockets, while charging and in people’s faces. A hospital in Seattle reports that e-cigarette injuries used to be a rare occurrence, but now it is seeing at least one patient a month from e-cigarette-related injuries, according to local media. The increasing frequency of these explosions has led the Transportation Department to ban the devices from checked baggage in airlines and has renewed calls for federal regulation of the industry.

Since they became available for purchase in 2007, e-cigarettes — devices that vaporize nicotine-based liquids — have become increasingly popular among teenagers and tobacco smokers trying to quit. One in four high-school students reported having used an e-cigarette in 2014, with one in eight saying they had smoked one in the last 30 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E-cigarette sales were expected to hit $1.5 billion in 2015, according to Wells Fargo, with the market for vaporizing products — which includes e-cigarettes — reaching $10 billion by the end of 2018.

Like hoverboards, e-cigarettes are powered by a lithium ion battery, which contains electrolytes that can combust when overheated. These batteries are also present in cellphones and laptops, and there have been rare incidents when these devices have overheated and caught fire. However, because of the cylindrical shape of e-cigarettes, either the battery, the device itself or both are propelled when the battery overheats, causing an explosion and increasing the likelihood for the fire to spread, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Fire Administration.

The agency examined 25 media reports of exploding e-cigarettes between 2009 and 2014: 80% of the incidents occurred while the device was charging and two exploded while in the user’s mouth, causing serious injury.

Most of these incidents are cases of consumers using batteries or chargers not specifically intended for e-cigarettes, says Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association. “When used and charged properly, [e-cigarettes] pose no more of a fire risk than other products that use lithium ion batteries,” he says. Simpler e-cigarettes that don’t require the user to charge the battery outside of the device pose a lower risk of combustion, he says. “It’s a remote risk that is almost entirely avoidable,” Conley adds says.

Another way e-cigarettes mirror the fledgling hoverboard market is the lack of industrywide safety regulations governing manufacturers or a regulatory body to enforce safety standards. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed an extension of its authority over tobacco products to include vaporizing devices, such as e-cigarettes. While the initial proposed regulations cover health concerns, the agency says increased authority will allow it to study the devices and issue further rulings. The Underwriters Laboratories, an independent organization that consults consumer product businesses on safety standards, has developed a set of standards for lithium ion batteries in certain products, but not e-cigarettes specifically.

Public opinion appears to support the FDA. Nearly 60% of 3,000 Americans surveyed said e-cigarettes should be regulated like tobacco products, according to an NPR poll released in December.

The FDA has previously found that e-cigarettes vary widely in reliability and quality, and didn’t always do what they said on the package. The AVA, however, maintains its stance that it doesn’t require such oversight. “The FDA has no regulatory authority over devices that don’t include nicotine,” Conley says.

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