A lot of people hail vaping like a safer alternative to cigarettes, arguing that there’s no tobacco smoke, so it’s reached be safer. It remains to be seen if that’s true, and there is some evidence how the stuff inside vapes and e-cigs is toxic. But beyond that, there’s the simple fact these things occasionally blow up.
You hadn’t heard of this? Some pretty gruesome reports are beginning to accumulate. In November, a person in Colorado broke his neck, lost some teeth, and suffered burns and facial fractures when his electronic cigarette exploded. A 15-year-old California boy lost half twelve teeth in a similar mishap last month. In Tennessee, another teen is recovering from the severe burns caused each time a vape starter kit caught fire in his pocket several weeks ago.
Statistics outlining how prevalent this really is remain thin, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency, of all the things, identified 25 cases of electronic cigarette explosions in the US between 2009-2014. However, that list relies only on incidents reported from the media. Considering that vaping’s seen a surge in popularity since then-this past year, the CDC reported a 3-fold increase among middle- and school students alone-the quantity almost definitely is rising. A quick Search on the internet shows no less than a dozen explosions in 2015 alone.
Instead of burning tobacco, vape pens and e-cigs work with a small lithium-ion battery to heat an aerosol cartridge to release a vapor that’s inhaled. As in any device that utilizes lithium-ion batteries, you are able to encounter problems once the battery is damaged or put through extremes in temperature. A shorter circuit could cause battery to overheat, catch fire, or perhaps explode. These complaints have a tendency to appear in cheap consumer gadgets that happen to be quickly churned out from factories. In general, it’s relatively rare, but obviously it happens-most recently, in hoverboard scooters.
“With lithium-ion batteries on the whole, if you operate one outside its safety window, there’s a tendency where things will go wrong,” says Venkat Viswanathan, who teaches mechanical engineering Carnegie Mellon University. That window is startlingly small: Viswanathan says batteries are the best kept between 50 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s February, and all of but four US states are averaging temperatures below 50 right now.
Occasionally, the catch is compounded by cheap lithium-ion batteries that “don’t have the luxury of using sophisticated management systems,” Viswanathan says. That can lead to dangerously over- or under-charged batteries. Dendrite is another potential problem. Dendrite is a conductive filament that will form during the period of boxmmod charge/discharge cycles, particularly if the battery is rapidly charged. These things can spread similar to a weed, eventually bridging the electrodes and causing a short circuit. “You have basically something comparable to gasoline in your lithium-ion battery,” Viswanathan says, “therefore immediately it catches fire.”
Lithium-ion batteries power a whole lot of gadgets obviously, and often do this without trouble. But things like mobile phones and laptops and electric vehicles typically are created to exacting specifications and rigorously tested, both through the company and outside experts. The Smoke-Free Alternative Trade Association, which represents for vape-makers, said it “cannot talk with user error or on the part of a manufacturer with regard to their device” and, “If you have truly a concern with a specific device, similar to a lap top or cellular phone manufacturer, that company should take the appropriate action.”
And also to be fair, it’s not unusual for users to modify their vape box mod, and a variety of websites offer tips on how to just do that. The marketplace trade group duly notes that hacked and modded devices can pose a safety risk.
All of these begs the question what, if something, is being done about this. Most regulatory discussions about e-cigarettes and vapes focus on the Food and Drug Administration’s critique in the chemicals found in the devices. The FDA is going to introduce rules regulating the marketplace, a move which could classify electric cigarettes and vaping products much like tobacco. Products would carry warning labels, sales to minors could be banned, and you’d see restrictions on things such as offering free samples. But little has been said concerning the safety in the devices.
The Smoke-Free Alternative Trade Association says it supports “reasonable science-based regulations,” but opposes anything that might “stifle innovation.” Nevertheless it argues “e-cigs and vapor items are technology products, separate and distinct from combustible tobacco.” They liken them to electronic products.
That’s where things get tricky. Asked whether it has any safety concerns concerning the devices, the Consumer Products Safety Commission deferred on the FDA, saying this is the federal regulator in control there. The FDA does claim responsibility for ensuring the protection of the parts within the devices which are found in the intake of cigarettes and tobacco products. But there aren’t a great deal of safety rules for manufacturers to follow, and also the FDA is encouraging individuals to report any problems.
Viswanathan has a recommendation for companies making what is popcorn lung from vaping and other gadgets that use lithium-ion batteries: Crib from automakers making electric cars. They’ve developed sophisticated systems for minimizing the risks of problems. “Lithium-ion batteries fundamentally are inclined to catching fire,” he says, “and car makers have discovered efficient methods to create zones where these batteries are safe to operate.”
Granted, the chances that your particular vape pen will blow up as an exploding cigar are slim. However it is possible, so the best option is to buy an excellent vape pen coming from a reputable manufacturer. Check the parts-if they look and feel cheap, they probably are. Viswanathan suggests ensuring that it’s got some type of battery management system to stop shorts and thermal runaway. Ensure you’re using the right battery and charger, and don’t modify anything.