Huff, puff and ex­plode

E-cig­a­rette fires, in­juries on the rise as more peo­ple use them

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Frank Elt­man

mineola, n.y.» Ka­t­rina Wil­liams wanted a safer al­ter­na­tive to smok­ing, and e-cig­a­rettes seemed to be the an­swer un­til the day one ex­ploded in her pocket as she drove home from a beauty sa­lon.

“It was like a fire­cracker” as it seared third-de­gree burns in her leg, blasted through her charred pants and stuck in the dash­board, the New Yorker said. That was in April. Wil­liams, a freight man­ager, said she still hasn’t re­turned to work. “It was very dis­turb­ing.”

Sim­i­lar painful ac­ci­dents have been recorded with in­creas­ing fre­quency over the past year as use of e-cig­a­rettes has climbed, with faulty bat­ter­ies seen as the sus­pected cul­prit. The in­dus­try main­tains eci­garettes are safe when used prop­erly.

The U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which started reg­u­lat­ing e-cig­a­rettes in May, iden­ti­fied about 66 ex­plo­sions in 2015 and early 2016, af­ter record­ing 92 ex­plo­sions from 2009 to Septem­ber 2015.

In late Novem­ber, a clerk at a liquor store in New York’s Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion was ca­su­ally lean­ing against a counter when the e-cig­a­rette in his pocket erupted. A se­cu­rity cam­era cap­tured him fran­ti­cally try­ing to snuff out a foun­tain of white-hot sparks.

Sur­veil­lance video also cap­tured an e-cig­a­rette ex­plo­sion in Septem­ber at a New Jersey mall that left a woman’s Louis Vuitton bag smok­ing as she stood at a check­out counter.

Po­lice say a teenage girl on a train at the Univer­sal Or­lando amuse­ment park suf­fered burns in Oc­to­ber when an elec­tronic cig­a­rette be­long­ing to an­other visi­tor ex­ploded and shot a fire­ball at her.

The numbers kept by the FDA may be an un­der­count. One hospi­tal, the UW Medicine Re­gional Burn Cen­ter at Har­borview Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Seat­tle, says it has seen about 23 pa­tients with e-cig­a­rette burns since it started track­ing them in­for­mally in Oc­to­ber 2015.

“They are ex­tremely dan­ger­ous and need to be re­vamped or re­vised,” said Marc Fre­und, a New York at­tor­ney who rep­re­sents both Wil­liams and a 14year-old boy who was par­tially blinded when an e-cig­a­rette de­vice ex­ploded at a kiosk sell­ing e-cig­a­rettes at a Brook­lyn mall.

The prob­lems with the de­vices are linked to their lithium-ion bat­ter­ies, which help va­por­ize liq­uid nico­tine into a mist that distrib­u­tors and some health ex­perts say is far less harm­ful than tra­di­tional to­bacco cig­a­rettes.

The same types of bat­ter­ies are used safely in many con­sumer elec­tron­ics, but they’ve also been be­hind fires in hover boards and smart­phones. Last year, the fed­eral Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion is­sued a rule pro­hibit­ing pas­sen­gers from pack­ing e-cig­a­rettes in checked lug­gage to pro­tect against in­flight fires.

Thomas Kik­las, co-founder of the To­bacco Va­por Elec­tronic Cig­a­rette As­so­ci­a­tion, ar­gues the de­vices are safe when used prop­erly. He said the TVECA en­cour­ages proper recharg­ing of the bat­ter­ies as a way to prevent pos­si­ble in­juries.

Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional, a mar­ket research com­pany, noted there were 10.8 mil­lion reg­u­lar e-cig­a­rette users in the U.S. in 2015, gen­er­at­ing $3.5 bil­lion in sales.

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