In June 2019, a 17-year old Nevada resident was injured when his vape pen exploded while he was smoking. The blast fractured his jaw knocked out several front teeth, and punched a hole in his chin.
The victim claimed that he had been using the device as intended, and could not recall doing anything that would have prompted the vape pen explosion. Ironically, the victim had not been illicitly smoking. The vape kit had been purchased by his mother, who had hoped that vaping would help her son quit.
Instead, the vape pen caused injuries that one of the victim’s surgeons described as looking “like a close-range gunshot wound,” while another surgeon described it as, “an injury we see in high-speed motor vehicle crashes.” The injury was so extensive and unexpected that the case was written up for the New England Journal of Medicine.
Vape pen injuries are believed to be extremely rare, given the millions of people who use them every day. What few accidents have been reported has prompted vape pen manufacturers to argue that the problem lies with the lithium ion batteries (LIBs) used to power them, or the users themselves. Critics argue that a vape pen explosion is a risk inherent to the devices. They are calling for increased scrutiny and regulations on the devices.
Popular among youths throughout the US, vape pens and other forms of e-cigarettes surpassed the use of traditional cigarettes among teens in 2014. As vape pen explosions repeatedly appear in the news, regulators are increasingly likely to place more scrutiny on the devices.
While vape pen explosions are seemingly uncommon, they do cause very severe injuries, and even fatalities.
Depending on where the pen is when it explodes, they can cause very severe burn and blast injuries, with the lithium batteries fueling very hot fires.
These incidents have occurred worldwide, across a broad range of vape pen models from various manufacturers. The e-cigarette website ecigone.com has compiled an extensive list of vape pen explosions and battery explosions, showing a mixture of fires and personal injuries they have caused. A number of these incidents have been reported in California.
- In March 2013, a woman and her husband were driving to an airport when her e-cigarette battery, plugged into a car charger, exploded shortly after liquid began to leak from the casing. Burning chemicals sprayed throughout the car, starting fires that gave the victim second degree burns on her legs and one of her hands. She successfully sued the e-cigarette distributor, the wholesaler, and the store where she bought the device for $1.9 million in 2015.
- In 2016, a Windsor, CA 15-year old boy lost a half dozen teeth and suffered extensive injuries to his mouth when his allegedly modified vape pen exploded while in use. Firefighters reporting to the scene claim that shrapnel from the pen were still hot when they arrived.
- A 26-year old Orange County, CA resident suffered second and third-degree burns after an e-cigarette battery exploded in his pants pocket. Requiring multiple surgeries for the burns, the man went on to sue the two vape shops where he brought the device and its charger.
A study published in BMJ Journals found that between 2015 and 2017, more than 2,000 Americans went to the emergency room with injuries caused by e-cigarette burns and/or explosions. In addition, tragically, vape pens have been blamed for at least two deaths in the United States:
- In May 2018, a 38-year-old Florida man was killed when his vape pen exploded, causing a projectile wound that penetrated his skull, and starting a fire that caused burns to more than 80% of his body. The Philippines-based manufacturer of the vape pen stated that their products “do not explode,” and blamed the explosion on a faulty atomizer or battery.
- In January 2019, a 24-year-old Texas man started to smoke a vape pen outside the store where he had just bought it. The pen exploded, showering his face and neck with metal shrapnel. He died in the hospital two days later. His cause of death was listed by the Tarrant County medical examiner as a stroke resulting from his carotid artery being severed by “penetrating trauma from exploding vaporizer pen.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been slow to respond to vape pen injuries. Currently, it does not officially track the number of explosions, and only recently has the FDA begun to recommend that manufacturers provide more information about the dangers of these devices.
Lithium ion batteries are a recurring factor in vape explosion incidents, but they are not the only factor.
Lithium ion batteries are ubiquitous in consumer electronics today due to their energy efficiency and small size. But they are inherently dangerous. Within each LIB is strip of polypropylene that keeps the electrodes inside from making contact. But should that strip be damaged or breached, allowing the electrodes to make contact, the battery will heat up, expand, and inevitably explode in a spray of flammable electrolyte.
These batteries have made headlines due to malfunctions in other consumer devices. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was notably banned from all airliners going to and from the US after a number of battery ignition incidents. And in 2017, a woman flying from Beijing to Melbourne was awakened when the battery in her headphones exploded.
But while LIBs are the common factor in many vape explosion stories, there are others to consider.
Vape manufacturers may still play a role in these accidents due to design flaws with their devices.
Like many other popular electronic devices, vapes are often designed to be small, easily pocketable. A number of these incidents involve devices and batteries that were in a shirt or pants pocket. Some vape designs do not feature recessed buttons, which can be easily depressed by accident, activating the device heat element and leading to a potential explosion.
Poorly made and incompatible battery charger accessories have caused vape explosions.
Many modern vape pens can be plugged into a charger via a USB cable. Some users opt to use a cheap, universal charger for their vapes. Alternatively, some users choose to carry spare batteries to plug into their vape pens when a charger isn’t readily accessible.
Unfortunately, some of these accessories do not necessarily conform to the same safety standards that the vape manufacturers adhere to. Alternatively, these third-party accessories may meet the voltage requirements for some devices, but not others.
User error and inaccurate reporting has only helped to muddle public understanding of the risks posed by vape pens.
Critics have been quick to point to the vape pens themselves as the common factor in these accidents. But proponents for the devices have argued that in many of these cases, the point of failure has been the users themselves, citing cases where the wrong charger was used, or a non-standard modification was made to a device that exploded.
Unfortunately, reporting of these accidents is sometimes confusing or misleading, which proponents claim is giving vape pens a bad reputation. A New York man was severely burned in January 2019 when a spare e-cigarette battery in his pocket exploded, but the story’s headline reported it as the device itself exploding. The text of the article did clarify that it was a spare battery, but many readers may not have noted this detail.
Competition among vape pen and lithium ion battery manufacturers may be resulting in rushed, unsafe products.
As with most consumer electronics, new model vape pens are released regularly, as are new LIBs with increased capacities and smaller physical sizes. The rush to meet consumer demands means that companies want to get new products to market faster than ever, and they seek ways to cut costs wherever possible.
A vape manufacturer may use cheaper safety elements in their devices, a decision that saves cents per device, but could save millions on a large-scale production run. Or they could go with a cheaper battery, risking the possibility that the safety features within may be less robust. The choice to go with device elements that are “good enough” in order to get product out in an extremely competitive market potentially puts end users at risk, but can also put companies themselves in peril.
E-cigarette manufacturer Puresmoker went out of business in 2013 after one of their devices exploded in the face of a user a year prior. It was determined that the victim was powering the device with an Enercell battery purchased from a Radio Shack. While the vape pen itself may not have been the primary factor, the cost of litigation potentially forced the company to close its doors.
Industry insiders and advocates argue that vape pens are no more dangerous than other consumer electronics with lithium ion batteries. While this is true for most users, a danger does exist, one that is potentially flying under the radar.
For now, vape manufacturers are being asked improve customer education about the devices, and the batteries that power them. But millions of vape pens are in the hands of Americans, the risks of which are not yet fully understood.