Millions of people worldwide use e-cigarettes. They have become popular primarily with people who are looking to cut back or quit their use of regular cigarettes altogether. Since e-cigarettes are often related to a decision to live a healthier life, it begs the question in most people’s minds, “How safe are these new-fangled devices?” You only begin to question safety more, especially when reports have increasingly surfaced of e-cigarettes exploding or catching fire. If e-cigarettes are going to be touted as a safer alternative to cigarettes, then a true investigation of the explosion incidents is needed. To put into perspective how safe they really are and give answers to the questions of why millions use these but only a few experience these explosive results.
Many questions need to be answered when it comes to exploding cigarettes. It’s easy just to be swayed by the headlines that make them seem like ticking time bombs with an inevitable self-destruct mechanisms. However, if this were the case would millions of people still choose to vape?
In order to better understand all of this data that comes flying at us over the Internet and the television news, we have compiled a comprehensive list of significant e-cigarette explosions that have occurred in the last 3 years. With this data, we will explore questions regarding how e-cigarettes are starting fires. When are fires and explosions occurring? What dangers and injuries are involved, and what the initial cause of the malfunction was itself?
E-cigarettes were first introduced into the market back in 2007, and since then they have been gaining in popularity at breakneck speeds. With sales of e-cigs in the United States alone estimated to be a $1.5 billion yearly market, and sales expected only to grow, settling the controversy of the explosive e-cigarette seems more important now than ever.
Let’s start by breaking down the e-cigarette itself. The first misnomer in the world of exploding e-cigs is exactly what it is that is exploding. Remember, an electronic cigarette is first and foremost and electrical device. Any electrical device, especially those you plug in for charging, will carry some danger of malfunction or explosion. There are three main pieces that make an e-cig functional. The cartridge or tank (where the liquid nicotine is stored), the atomizer (the heating element), and the battery. Of these elements, the battery, seems to be the most suspect party.
When do they Explode?
According to FEMA, 80% of e-cigarette explosions happen during charging. In a variety of reports, several of which we will investigate later, the cause is often linked to the use of an alternative charger, one that was not sold with the battery that was charging. What this means is that the majority of the damage caused by e-cigarette malfunction.
In our research we found the same trend; surveying 30 separate cases from 2012 to 2015 we found 22 cases where the fire started while the device was charging. The remaining 8 exploded either in the users’ possession, in their pocket or hand, or it was undisclosed by the media at the time of the incidence.
Charlie Pugsley is a member of the London Fire Brigade, fire investigation team, who has been involved in several e-cig explosion cases, including a well-documented April 2014 London incident. He said regarding these explosions: “People assume e-cigarettes are much safer than ordinary cigarettes, and in most cases they are. The danger is that people sometimes use incorrect chargers, which runs the risk of over-charging, which can potentially have explosive results. As with all rechargeable electrical equipment, it’s of vital importance that people use the correct type of charger for their e-cigs to prevent fires.”
Still, not all incidences happen when the battery is charging. There are some cases, roughly around 12% according to FEMA, that occur when the devices are either in use or storage. This may be due to the ever-present risk of using lithium batteries that can pack a large amount of power into a small space. One case study, from the American Journal of Medical Case Reports, looked into a February 2015 incident in New Jersey, could not find a specific cause for the explosion that took place when the e-cigarette was stored in the user’s pocket, however, they theorize an answer that is probably and likely in the case of non-charging e-cigarette explosions:
“Many e-cigarettes use lithium batteries due to their ability to store large amounts of energy in a compact amount of space. However, the inherent characteristics of lithium batteries can pose a risk of fire and explosion. Partial thickness burns caused by spontaneously exploding mobile phones has been described in the literature. The lithium ion battery has separately been described as the ‘mini-bomb in your pocket,’ due to its known ability to spontaneously ignite. Poor design, use of low-quality materials, manufacturing flaws and defects, and improper use and handling can all contribute to a condition known as ‘thermal runaway,’ whereby the internal battery temperature can increase to the point of causing a battery fire or explosion.”
The truth be told; however, we use lithium batteries for many other things, every day. Cameras, phones, laptops, in fact, they are almost becoming the norm in today’s technologically driven culture. However, few people know about their potential risk, especially when they are used with a device that includes a heating element, such as an e-cigarette.
What Kind of E-Cigarettes Explode?
While most of the reports are unclear at best of what makes and brands are the ones that are more apt to explode, we still found a few commonalities. While the batteries are the genesis of the explosion concerns, there are still some e-cigarette models and makes that are more potentially hazardous than others. While one report we examined did, in fact, come from a MOD, otherwise known as a personal vaporizer, the majority of the cases came from rechargeable vape pens.
In a MOD or Personal Vaporizer, but also in many rechargeable kits you can find, the battery completely disconnects from the device, allowing it to charge separately, away from your tank and atomizer. According to the data, these styles seem to be safer. The vape pens, conversely, often have a built-in USB port, which allows the user to plug in the whole device. Meaning your heating element is right there next to your charging battery.
Even FEMA, who has put countless hours into e-cigarette exploding research, agrees that these styles seem to create more dangerous situations than PVs, E-Gos, or other rechargeable models. In their research, they discovered that “all of the incidents reviewed involved ‘vape pens’ or ‘twists,’ which more closely resemble traditional cigarettes in appearance. These twists are intended to be recharged using a USB port built into the e-cigarette and a power adapter supplied with the device.”
MODs, however, do present another risk of their own. Those who successfully create MODS have done their research, and this is essential, to have a safe and effective device. Also, with many MODs, people use batteries that have wrappers, another potential cause for concern. While no cases we surveyed mentioned any battery wrap malfunction, electronics experts agree that any rip, tear, or weakness in the battery wrapping can be dangerous, especially when you consider the amount of power contained in lithium ion batteries. Making sure this seemingly unimportant part of the battery is intact could prevent explosion or potential battery acid leakage.
USB Ports and Charging
Like most rechargeable electronic devices these days, many e-cigarettes have a USB port that connects the device to the power adapter. When disconnected from the power adapter that is supplied from the manufacturer, these charging cords appear as though they can easily connect to computers and other power adapters. However, this easy mistake seems to be the cause of the majority of these e-cigarette explosions. The use of such non-approved power adapters is a running theme in the potential cause of the incidences involving exploding e-cigarettes. The truth is few consumers understand that just because a plug will fit in a USB port, it does not mean it is fully compatible. Without knowing the specific electrical specifications of an alternative USB power source, as well as your battery, you cannot guarantee an effective or a safe charge.
To reduce the risk of an e-cigarette explosion users are advised only to plug an e-cigarette into a USB port or power adapter that was provided with the battery or e-cigarette itself. According to FEMA, using a power adapter or charger “not supplied by the manufacturer may subject the battery to higher current than is safe, leading to thermal runaway that results in an explosion and/or fire.”
Does the Fire Spread?
In most cases of exploding cigarettes the damage stays relatively local, not causing too much damage to the surroundings. However, in many incidences these explosions can spread to fire and create real damage and injury to the people and places that are nearby.
Of the cases we surveyed, almost 1/3 resulted in some sort of significant damage to the home, room or vehicle where it was stored. These case can usually be attributed to where the device was being charged or stored. Several were being stored around things like papers on a desk, or pillow and beddings, all of which are extremely flammable and can lead to a significant spread, when the battery itself only would have resulting in a quick burst, not an ongoing flame. The majority of cases only resulted in minor fire spreading, though some did cause burns and injuries to the users. If the fire spreads it can also cause significant smoke inhalation, which can be harmful to the user and in extreme cases can require medical attention.
Are there Cases of Injury?
Since most of the incidences of e-cigarette explosions occur when charging is taking place, injuries are fewer than incidences of a fire spreading. Still, with faulty batteries and negligent use, some e-cigarettes have exploded in user’s hands, pockets, and mouth, resulting in burns and mainly topical injuries. These injuries can sometimes be gruesome, but they are definitely in the rare category, as the incidence of e-cigarette explosions in comparison to e-cig users is so small.
One case in Scotland does have some questioning the extremity of what can happen in an e-cigarette explosion. One gentleman died, due to a massive explosion that was triggered by a charging e-cigarette that was near an oxygen machine. Since the danger of the flammability of oxygen is so well known, it is completely inaccurate to say that an e-cigarettes explosion was the lone culprit in this unfortunate tragedy. Again, the cause of the initial spark appeared to be the use of an incompatible charger to power up the e-cig device.
Ultimately, it is hard to fault a product like e-cigarettes for being so rarely dangerous when they are designed to replace one of the already proven most dangerous products on the market. Regular cigarettes smoking in the United States alone is responsible for 480,000 deaths a year. There is an average of about 7,500 residential home fires started by cigarettes each year. Cigarettes are clearly still more of a threat to everyone’s safety, especially when there are ways to prevent many of the causes of e-cigarette explosions.
While you can’t always protect yourself from faulty devices. Whether they be e-cigarettes, cell phones, or laptops, you can take a few simple precautions to lower your risk of your e-cigarette ending in fiery disaster.
1) Always know your brand and avoid counterfeits. Buy from a reputable source, read reviews and ask those in the know for advice if you need to. If in doubt, just stick with an American brand. The manufacturing standards in the USA are superior to China, where the majority of these devices come from, making your Made in the US items safer in general and less likely to malfunction.
2) Only charge with the charger and power adapter that comes with the battery.
3) Do not plug into computers, or other USB-capable devices.
4) Find a device that has a battery you remove from the atomizer to charge, these appear to be safer than the models that stay attached when charging.
5) Never overcharge your battery. Do not leave it plugged in unattended, when you are asleep or away from the home.
Survey of Cases
We have included a short synopsis of the cases we examined to compile our data, so you can explore each case yourself. They are presented in chronological order.
February 2012 – Niceville, Florida – Man experienced an exploding e-cigarette while in use. The cause of the explosion was still unsure at press time but suggested to be the result of an overcharged or faulty battery. Other supplemental reports also indicate the man had modified his e-cig, which could have contributed to the incident. Man experience significant injury to the face and several burns as a result.
March 2013 – Corona, California – An e-cigarette exploded due to a faulty battery while being charged in a car. It resulted in minor burns to the vehicle and operator.
June 2013 – Tulsa, Oklahoma – An e-cigarette plugged into a laptop to charge exploded causing moderate fire damage in one woman’s home.
July 2013 – Sherman, Texas – A man had been charging his e-cigarette battery in his laptop for about 2 hours when it exploded creating moderate fire damage to his electronics and home. The man, who was near the device at the time, suffered several burns, and both he and his wife were treated for smoke inhalation as a result of the subsequent fire.
August 2013 – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – 15 minutes after it began charging, a woman’s e-cigarette exploded leaving minor carpet damage and destroying the device itself. The woman said she bought the e-cigarette from a place that told her any charger would work, despite the fact incompatible chargers seems to be the number one cause of e-cigarette fires.
September 2013 – Atlanta, Georgia – A woman charging her e-cigarette with her laptop experienced minor fire damage when her battery exploded as a result of not being charged with the provided charging equipment.
September 2013 – Mount Pleasant, Utah – A woman charging her e-cigarette in her car suffered burns to herself and young child when it exploded during charging. While the cause was still unclear at press time, charging an e-cigarette in a warm car can often cause the battery to overheat, which can lead to malfunction.
November 2013 – Eugene, Oregon – After an e-cigarette was left charging in a car for two hours, it exploded causing damage to a man and a woman’s passenger truck.
November 2013 – Kootenai County, Idaho – An e-cigarette was plugged into a laptop to charge and created explosive results. The incident left no injuries, only minor home damage.
November 2013 – Queens Creek, Arizona – An e-cigarette caught fire while charging causing damage one man’s home. While the man denied using an incompatible charger. The investigation appears to show that the charger in use was not one provided by the manufacturer.
November 2013 – Colorado Springs, Colorado – A man’s e-cigarette exploded while charging causing his mattress to catch on fire. Though he was able to smother the flames to keep damage at a minimum, he still suffered a few minor burns. It has not been determined whether it was a faulty battery, an incompatible charger, or another malfunction that caused the initial spark.
December 2013 – Batley, England – A faulty battery was the cause of this e-cigarettes explosion that took place when the device was charging. Only minor home damage was reported.
January 2014 – Springfield, Missouri – Another charging e-cigarette explosion; though it was unclear at press time the consensus is that an incompatible charger seems to be the likely culprit for this blaze. The explosion resulted in second-degree burns to the user.
January 2014 – Sneads Ferry, North Carolina – Unfortunately, the official cause of this case is still unreported. However, the explosion took place in the user’s possession near his mouth, causing serious burn and injury to the user’s eyes.
February 2014 – Birmingham, England – An e-cigarette was left on a desk in an office building, connected to a computer for charging. The fire damage was minimal, and no one was injured.
February 2014 – Abertillery, South Wales – A man was charging his e-cigarette in his laptop when it caught fire and shot across the room, leaving minor damage on his furniture, carpet and electronic equipment.
April 2014 – London, England – A woman was treated for smoke inhalation and shock when her e-cigarette exploded while charging with an incompatible charger.
April 2014 – North Yorkshire, England – An e-cigarette was being charged behind the bar in a busy pub, when it exploded near a waitress who was understandably shocked by the incident. The e-cig was being charged using an iPad charger and left the waitress with burns and one customer with a burn mark from the shrapnel that came from the exploding battery.
April 2014 – Leicester, England – A woman admits to using the wrong adapter to charge her e-cigarette device. Which is likely the cause of the fire that started in her car after about 20 minutes of charging. She has said she will be using the disposable e-cigarette models from now on.
May 2014 – Solihull, England – A woman had to evacuate her house with her young children when her e-cigarette ignited into flames in her home. The e-cigarette was connected to an incompatible charger designed for an iPhone. The flames caused significant home damage but no injuries.
July 2014 – Marsden, England – A woman’s e-cigarette exploded in her kitchen while charging in a regular wall socket. However, it was not reported whether she was using the factory supplied charger or not. The fire resulted in small damaged to her kitchen wall and appliances but no injuries were sustained.
August 2014 – Wallasay, Scotland – One of the most noted cases of e-cigarette explosions comes from Scotland where a man was unfortunately killed when an e-cigarette went into flames near his oxygen tank. The result was, of course, tragic. The origin of the e-cigarette fire was attributed to an incompatible charger being used to recharge the battery.
November 2014 – South Hampton, England – A non-manufacturer-supplied charger was the cause of another e-cigarette fire for a young couple in South Hampton. The battery exploded into flames while charging, but they were able to extinguish the flames before severe structural damaged occurred.
February 2015 – Ramona, California – A man was raising his e-cigarette to his mouth when he noticed the increasing temperature of the device. He pulled the device away, but as he was doing so, the battery exploded, causing burn damage to the user’s face and hand. The cause of the malfunction was still under investigation at the time of the report.
February 2015 – New Jersey – A gentlemen in New Jersey sustained serious burns to his leg when his e-cigarette exploded in his pocket. The actual cause of the malfunction was not specified.
March 2015 – Santa Ana, California – A Southern California man experience an e-cigarette explosion while holding the device, resulting in serious injuries. While the cause was not entirely determined on the report, it is believed an overcharged lithium battery may have been a contributing factor.
May 2015 – Western France – A man in France experience an e-cig explosion while in use. Likely attributed to a faulty battery that was manufactured in China, though the report alludes to the possibility that the device had been modified incorrectly.
July 2015 – Austin, Texas – An e-cigarette exploded in one man’s pocket resulting in burn injuries. He reported feeling a vibration from his pant’s pocket where he kept an extra e-cigarette battery, soon it turned into flames. The battery is believed to have been a counterfeit.
August 2015 – Newport, Wales – A young family had to evacuate their residence when an e-cigarette caught fire while charging. The device was plugged into an incompatible charger that did not come with the device.
August 2015 – Wyandotte, Michigan – A man had to be admitted to the hospital when his e-cigarette exploded as he hit the button for use. He suffered a major injury, and the cause is yet to be determined.
The information presented in this article was compiled with information from official news sources and is not in any way all conclusive. There are many stories about e-cigarette malfunctions, so to ensure accurate, well-researched information we only surveyed cases from official news sources. Our informal investigation samples 30 cases of note in the world of e-cigarette explosions. Considering the nature of these incidents and the lack of severity in most cases, we realized many e-cigarette cases of sparks and fires may not have even been reported. Leading us to believe that the numbers of injuries and damages are likely lower than presented.