“It Was a Kaboom!” Trendy E-Cigs Keep Exploding

Oct 07, 2013 at 12:07 PM ET

E-cigarettes are supposed to be the safer way to smoke—except when they explode in your face.

Yes, sometimes e-cigarettes blow up. And not in harmless, little combustions, but in car-charring, child-burning, body-scarring blasts.

Two weeks ago a 3-year old suffered second-degree burns when hot coils shot out, projectile-style, from his mother’s e-cigarette while it charged. Days later a UK man suffered his third (yes, third) e-cigarette explosion, this one torching the inside of his car. In a win for the collective intelligence of humankind, the star-crossed smoker has since quit altogether.

In early September a Georgia woman watched her e-cig her shoot 4-foot flames across her living room floor. She later compared the blast she encountered to a bomb detonation: “It was a kaboom!” But it could have been far worse. And it has been. Last year a 57-year-old Florida man lost several teeth and segments of his tongue after an e-cig exploded in his mouth.

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So who’s to blame? Depending on whom you ask, it’s the fault of manufacturers for their shoddy products, imbeciles who don’t know how to use e-cigs or the media for drumming up a bunch of unfounded hysteria.

There is one thing everyone agrees on, however: The source of the blast is nothing more than a toasted battery. As with laptops and most other rechargeable devices, e-cigarettes use lithium-ion batteries, which are prone to overheating (or “thermal runaway”). And while most reputable e-cigarette kits come with a safety circuit that guards against overcharging, posts on e-cig forums and statements from manufacturers blame cheap, made-in-China replacements, or MOD (the e-cig term for “user modification”).

While some e-cigarettes screw directly into their chargers, most hook up to a USB port, and users often see such a handy electronic design as a go-ahead to plug their e-cigs into any USB connection, from their computer to their iPhone charger. Except, you really, really shouldn’t do this. Ever. Unless you’re an arsonist.

Unlike made-for-e-cig USB ports, common USB ports will allow the vaping devices to continue charging, even when they’ve reached their boiling point“Battery stacking,” where people use two batteries to get a longer charge, has also been cited as a symptom of e-cig idiocy. In short, if you don’t use the right charger or the proper batteries, your device will go from being a source of relaxation to a ticking time bomb.

E-cig consumers who have witnessed an explosion themselves are pissed that such a pleasure-inducing habit can also be hazardous. Reddit user ChrisXMassacre recently documented his own experience:

“So, I’ve been using Tsunami brand e-cigs for over a year now and nothing like this has ever happened,” he wrote. “One of my batteries died, so i took it to the smoke shop for a replacement. Got home, plugged it in, not five minutes later… it fucking exploded and this is the aftermath.”

If you are e-cig user yourself, some cautionary advice gleaned from pro-vapers: Avoid shoddy, nonreputable e-cig brands, and if you must be cheap, charge your e-cig in this handy-dandy PolySafe Lipo Anti-Explosion Bag.

“All of the incidents occurred because of a lack of common sense, not because of the eCig,” wrote user Hooligan666 on the electronic cigarette Subreddit—such an attitude is pervasive across pro-vaping forums whose members possess a religious level of industry loyalty.

“My worry (*putting on my tinfoil hat*) is that vaping has so many interests against it that we’ll see smear campaigns from people posing as users and making up hazards,” wrote MasterVaper Kate on vapersforum.com. “There have been four battery explosions in the last couple of months reported on forums, all from mods and all possibly from badly designed devices or user error.”

Other e-cig aficionados have expounded upon conspiracy theories intended to dirty the e-cig name. According to them, the explosion stories are all part of Big Tobacco’s master plan to get their rival industry crushed by regulators. “Isolated events [are] still being used to vilify those of us wanting to move away from big tobacco,” wrote Reddit user Blinky1979.

ESCape87 agrees: “Fact is, the tobacco companies will have the media report any and all dangers/faults with e-cigs because it is cutting their income, and they will continue to do so until e-cigs are regulated and the tobacco companies have control again. Tobacco is one of the biggest forms of incomes for governments and has been, like, forever. You can call it a conspiracy theory, I call it common sense.”

With analysts predicting the sale of e-cigarettes to reach $1.7 billion this year and others claiming that the market will beat out traditional tobacco by 2021, the vaping industry is certainly a credible threat. Though its status as an unregulated enterprise may soon come to an end. Last month, 40 attorney generals urged the FDA to start regulating e-cigarettes as tobacco products. The move ignited suspicion among the e-cig faithful.

Some Reddit users reached out to me personally to comment on the issue, albeit skeptical of my intended angle:

“The only reason the vaping community is being targeted is because of money the ‘e-cig’ market is taking out of big tobacco and big pharms pockets,” TeeHipster tells me. “As for the exploding batteries, the reason this has been all over the news lately is simple scare-tactic propaganda. The vaping community [has] been using these devices for years with very little incident, most of which are user stupidity. With the quick rise in popularity of vaping, there are people who jump on the bandwagon without doing their homework and use their equipment improperly.”

Of course exploding consumer products are prime fodder for a lawsuit against the respective company, and several are already underway. In 2012 a Colorado man sued Pure Enterprises after an e-cigarette exploded in his face, hospitalizing him for eight days. And in July a California woman sued VapCigs after her e-cigarette exploded in her car, leaving her with second-degree burns. E-cigarette companies tend to attribute the accidents to user modification, however, judging by this considerably ironic marketing, they may not be aware of the problem:

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As for what the industry is saying, safety first is their message. “We also urge consumers to always read and follow product instructions,” says Cynthia Cabrera, executive director of the Smoke Free Alternative Trade Association.

But seriously, who reads instructions? An unofficial polling of my coworkers confirms that almost no one does. When a potential explosion is involved, relying on the notoriously impatient modern population to read from a dreadfully dry user guide doesn’t seem to be a sufficient safety net. As Reddit user The_Goss says, “It might be impossible to expect the average consumer to be responsible enough to do these actions and companies may have to add in a few more bits and bobs for internal regulation of each battery’s voltage, but until then, it’s up to the consumer as to what happens to their gear.”

Due to the government shutdown, the FDA could not be reached for comment (though I tried several times before remembering the consequences of ineptitude). Per their site, which thankfully doesn’t require federal employees to stay up and running: “As the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, consumers of e-cigarette products currently have no way of knowing whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use.”

To paraphrase: Use at your own risk. One day you may have a sleek, trendy new device in your pocket, and the next day—kaboom!—your pants are on fire.

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