Why E-Cigarettes Explode and How to Vape Safely

In 2015, a man was hospitalized with serious injuries after his e-cigarette exploded in his face . Another victim received severe burns to his hands, a hole in his tongue, and knocked out teeth. This is why and how e-cigarettes can literally blow you up, and what you can do to minimize your risk.

Admittedly, the claim that e-cigarettes “explode” sounds overwhelming, but this video shows that something is clearly on fire . These concerns about fire and consumer safety prompted the United States Fire Department (USFA) to conduct an investigation, which they published in late 2014 titled E-Cigarette Fires and Explosions (PDF). The main caveat is that their investigation is based on collected reports of accidents related to e-cigarettes that occurred between 2009 and August 2014 (25 in total).

The battery in your e-cigarette is a big problem

Most e-cigarettes are powered by a lithium-ion battery, and hence a fire hazard. Lithium-ion batteries can be found everywhere, from our cell phones to our cameras and hybrid cars. When you puff on the e-cigarette, the battery powers the heating element, which then turns the chemical solution in the can into steam. In other, more tame e-cigarettes, you have to press a switch to drag and drop. In any case, a lithium-ion battery is involved.

We know that lithium-ion batteries can cause fires if left in certain high-pressure areas, such as in the hold of an aircraft. In early 2015, the FAA banned the storage of e-cigarettes and other spare lithium-ion batteries in checked baggage . However, under normal conditions, the chances of a lithium-ion battery failing is pretty darn small ( about one in a million ). On rare occasions, the USFA report explains:

During a typical lithium-ion battery failure mode, the electrolyte heats up to boiling point, the internal pressure in the battery rises to the point where the seal at the end of the battery breaks and pressure is abruptly released through the sealed end of the battery compartment.

However, the cylindrical shape of e-cigarettes and their structurally weak endpoints make them more hazardous to fire.

When the battery seal (at the end of the battery) breaks, the pressure in the cylinder of the e-cigarette quickly builds up and bursts instantly, usually at the end. As a result of battery and container failure, one or the other or both of them can fly around the room like a bullet or small rocket. Unlike e-cigarettes, cylindrical lithium-ion batteries used in laptop computers and hand-held tools are contained in hard plastic boxes that are usually strong enough to prevent a failed battery from flying out. Fires do occur as a result of battery failure, but in most cases, fires initially only affect the device in which the battery is installed.

Generally, lithium-ion batteries cause overheating problems due to external heat sources (such as direct sunlight), short circuits, or overcharging. In 20 of the 25 incidents cited in the USFA report, a battery malfunction occurred when the e-cigarette was plugged into a USB port and recharged.

Batteries usually have protective functions to prevent short circuiting and overcharging. However, e-cigarettes usually have a USB port that is compatible with any USB cable and charger. People often assume that any charger, including manufacturer approved and other unauthorized, third-party charger, will work if it works and the device responds, but this is not the case.

According to the USFA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) , charging an e-cigarette with unapproved power adapters “may expose the battery to higher voltages than is considered safe” and increase the risk of overheating (called thermal runaway ). … During a thermal runaway, the battery can melt, emitting a lot of heat, and electrolytes can reach boiling point … well, you can probably guess what might happen next.

How to minimize the risk of e-cigarette failure

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently said it would regulate vaping . While the focus is on ingredients and packaging, the FDA’s expanded mandates include “components and parts,” including “certain batteries.”

The federal registry confirms that the FDA has been concerned about reports of e-cigarette explosions and has provided draft safety guidelines for companies to follow. For example, the FDA says product labeling should include text or graphics to indicate that users should only charge a product using specific chargers to minimize the risk of battery failure. However, this guide has not yet been finalized.

Until then, you can keep yourself safe by getting a little more education. Most importantly, handle e-cigarette batteries (or any lithium-ion battery) with care. Here are some key pointers:

  • Use the charger supplied by the manufacturer: Always use the charger supplied with the device and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. This way you know the battery is compatible with the charger. Do not leave it connected to the charger overnight.
  • Be careful with what you plug your e-cigarette into: avoid plugging your e-cigarette into any old USB port. The manufacturer’s user manual usually includes specifications for the correct voltage.
  • Buy from reputable companies and suppliers: There are many homemade “mods” or, in fact, inexpensive DIY e-cigarettes. This is not entirely safe, because homemade mods may simply not have built-in safety mechanisms to prevent overheating.
  • Make sure the battery is “safe”: the battery should not be more powerful than the one for which the device is intended. Plus, there is a different quality of batteries. Poorly made, inexpensive, counterfeit ones usually don’t work as well and are more likely to cause problems. Online forums like this one at Planet of the Vapes often share information about product recalls, safety warnings , and which batteries to avoid.
  • Take care of your battery: The Ashtray blog (full disclosure, the blog is a subsidiary of a site that sells e-cigarettes) invites you to clean the battery and terminal contents with a tissue or alcohol wipes if dirty. When you are not using an e-cigarette, be sure to turn off the battery. Finally, they recommend not overtightening when attaching the battery to the clearomizer (clear plastic or glass case of the e-cigarette, if you have one ). If you suspect that the battery is damaged, buy a new one or take it to an electronics service center for inspection.

If the battery overheats , Battery University recommends moving the device away from other flammable objects (if it can be handled safely) and placing it on a solid, non-flammable surface. If possible, remove the battery and let it “burn” outdoors. In the event of a fire, take a fire extinguisher (only if it is a lithium metal battery) or simply use water or another non-alcoholic liquid (soda works!) To prevent the spread of the fire.

Not all battery failures are preventable, but e-cigarette battery failure is statistically small. However, given the growing popularity of vaping (more than 2.5 million Americans at the latest, according to a USFA report), this is a very real possibility. If you are vaping, do so carefully.


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