Doctors, victims, lawyers call for action after Denver7 investigation into e-cigarette explosions

DENVER – The use of e-cigarettes has exploded over the past several years among nicotine users both as an alternative to tobacco and as a device for people to quit smoking. But their exploding batteries have drawn concerns from a wide range of professionals – from regulators to medical and aviation professionals alike.

Denver7 Investigates has for months compiled among the most extensive databases of cases in which the devices, which are often powered by lithium-ion batteries, have caught aflame or exploded altogether – leaving their users and innocent bystanders sometimes with severe burns and other injuries.

But as the Federal Aviation Administration and federal regulators implement stronger restrictions on where people can take and use e-cigs, their use continues to expand, and the influx of questionably-engineered batteries being produced domestically and overseas continues to draw concerns.

Databases reveal vast extent of e-cig explosions, burns

In Colorado, there have 34 documented cases of e-cig batteries exploding, the vast majority in 2016, which left at least 27 people hospitalized with burns and other injuries. Doctors at University of Colorado Hospital (UCHealth) treated 16 e-cig-related burn victims alone.

“It seems to me that the battery is the problem with them,” said UCHealth Burn Center Director Dr. Anne Wagner. “Until somebody makes them have safe batteries, they’re not safe to be out in public.”

But Denver7 Investigates’ database -- compiled through lawsuits, federal reports, and online resources, including a site that compiles explosions -- details 253 cases of exploding or burning e-cigs worldwide since 2011. Most of them have happened over the past two years.

The stories are wide-ranging: the explosions happen at home, in cars and while people are simply walking down the street. Sometimes the devices are charging; other times they aren’t. Some people were carrying extra lithium-ion batteries separately from their device, some with keys or loose change in the same pocket.

Last October, a 14-year-old girl riding the Hogwarts Express at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida suffered burns when another person’s e-cigarette exploded and shot flames onto the girl.

In February, a Phoenix-area man was driving, talking with his daughter on his cellphone when his exploded, lighting his lower extremities aflame.

A California man now speaks with a lisp after his e-cigarette exploded in his mouth, mangling his tongue and causing him to lose half a finger.

In another case, a hot battery coil burned a toddler’s car seat and the child after an e-cig blew up in a car.

Video courtesy YouTube/yahoo

The United Kingdom has also seen its fair share of exploding e-cigs: a father’s exploding e-cigarette nearly burnt his 7-year-old boy’s face at a roller rink, and a charging e-cigarette exploded in a pub lit a barmaid’s dress on fire, burning her.

Of the 253 cases Denver7 Investigates documented, 131 had known parts of the body where the device exploded. Forty-eight percent of the explosions happened while the device was in a person’s pocket and 28 percent happened when the device was being held near a person’s face.

And while the circumstances that lead to the explosions are hard to pin down, there is a common theme with many of the exploding devices: they often come from an overseas manufacturer with little to no warning labels or directions for proper use.

“I received mine with no warning labels, no box, no packaging, and there was no warning on the battery itself,” said Craig Renz, who was treated at UCHealth last year after his e-cig blew up in his pocket at Home Depot. “I was told at the [vape] store, ‘Just charge it up and you’re good to go.’”

Attorneys, regulators seek more oversight over devices

Doctors, attorneys and regulators are now honing in on the companies manufacturing the batteries to try and find a solution to the explosions.

“They all know that it’s a battery,” Dr. Wagner said. “There’s a lot of excuses being brought up as to why this is happening, but what I’ve also been told is they’re not regulated; nobody is regulating these.”

Matt Siporin is a Chicago-based personal injury attorney who works with e-cig burn victims and who is seeking more federal oversight over the devices.

“These manufacturers are in China and outside the country. They’re often times very difficult to bring into court and to play by our rules to hold them accountable,” he said. “There are simple fixes to the designs of these batteries that can prevent this from occurring, but we need regulation.”

Video courtesy YouTube/Burgoynes

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year finalized new rules pertaining to e-cigarettes that gave it regulatory purview over many of the components of e-cigarettes, but it only has jurisdiction over some battery types.

Many of the faulty batteries come from overseas manufacturers or from people modifying them themselves.

While safety has been a top concern with federal regulators, they have also focused their attention on e-cigarettes’ growing popularity among adults, but more heavily on their growing use among children and teens.

FAA, airlines out in front of e-cig regulations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also clamped down on the devices in the past two years after nearly two dozen incidents of them catching fire aboard in-flight airplanes.

FAA data obtained by Denver7 Investigates show there were 22 documented e-cigarette explosions and incidents aboard airplanes since 2009, but 18 of those happened in the past two years.

In January 2015, the FAA issued a safety alert warning airlines to have their passengers carry e-cigarettes only in planes’ cabins, and a rule was instituted later that year mandating that e-cigs not be put in checked baggage or be charged aboard planes.

Their use aboard planes was banned outright in March 2016, though they are still allowed in carry-on luggage. But that hasn’t necessarily stopped the incidents from happening.

Denver7 Investigates’ investigation found two e-cig-related incidents at Denver International Airport last year: In June, a Spirit Airlines flight was evacuated after an e-cigarette caught on fire in a person’s carry-on backpack. And in September, a checked backpack caught on fire on another Spirit Airlines flight and was caught by a baggage handler.

But three incidents have happened across the country since October. A backpack lit aflame during the boarding of an Alaska Airlines flight on Oct. 30 and was put out with fire extinguishers; a charging e-cigarette started smoking and caught fire at Seattle International Airport in November; and on Dec. 15, an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Indianapolis had to be diverted to Arkansas after a passenger’s e-cigarette caught fire.

“There was a lot of panic in the plane,” a passenger on that flight, Cindy Nelson, told WRTV. “We made the fastest descent I have ever experienced.”

Airline workers and officials are taking notice of the issue.

“It’s an up-and-coming threat to aviation, and the FAA and the [Department of Transportation] are reacting promptly, as well as the airlines,” said the Aviation Safety Chairman for the Airline Pilots Association, Steve Jangelis. “Devices that are coming in from overseas, as we’ve seen, we hope that the government would step in and regulate if they realize there’s a hazard.”

And while airlines have clamped down on the devices, many hope there is further regulation coming.

“I hope this investigation ends in having actual regulations being enforced and prompting manufacturers, retailers to do what’s safe for consumer and the public, and not just worry about the bottom line,” Siporin said.

“I am hoping this will start the ball rolling, finally, so they will take these things off the market until they can make their batteries safer,” said Wagner.

For more on the existing rules and regulations regarding e-cigarettes and other Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems, click here.

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