3 seriously burned from e-cigarette battery fires

Two of the men had to undergo surgery for skin grafts on their thighs

By David Templeton 
Pittshburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Woe unto him who keeps a spare electronic-cigarette battery in his pocket.  

In three separate incidents since late December, Pittsburgh area men have received severe burns when spare lithium-ion batteries sparked fires inside their pants pockets. Two required skin grafts to their thighs while another, spotting smoke rising from his pocket, reached inside and received second-degree burns to his hand.

All three underwent treatment at the West Penn Hospital Burn Center, with two admissions.

“These all were related to the lithium batteries. People tend to carry a spare battery with them. What we’re trying to determine is whether it occurs with certain brands of batteries,” said Ariel M. Aballay, the burn center medical director. The batteries apparently came in contact with keys or coins producing “a spark mechanism that ignited the clothes.”

In the worst case, said Dr. Aballay, the patient had thigh burns from just above the knee and extending to the waist and testicular area. Third-degree burns — the most severe kind — require skin grafts, he said. One former patient couldn’t be contacted. West Penn Hospital officials said two others declined to discuss their situation.

Such incidents are rare, with concern they’re becoming more common with growing popularity of e-cigarettes. Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, for example, recently reported four people being treated since October for serious injuries from exploding e-cigarettes.

The Statistic Brain Research Institute reports 2.75 million e-cigarette users in 2015 with $2.9 billion in sales, representing nearly 70 percent growth from 2014. But other sources have reported 9 million people having tried e-cigarettes with annual sales burgeoning to $10 billion.    

Lithium batteries in e-cigarettes heat and vaporize flavored juices often containing nicotine to be inhaled.

“The shape and construction of e-cigarettes make them more likely than other products powered by lithium-ion batteries to behave like a ‘flaming rocket’ when it fails,” states an October 2014 report by the U.S. Fire Administration, noting that unapproved power sources can overcharge batteries, with potential to explode, ignite fires or leak flammable vapors.

In that report, the administration documented 25 e-cigarette incidents based on media reports extending back to 2009. Nine injuries occurred with no deaths, many occurring while batteries were being charged. 

Among those was a 2011 case involving a man hospitalized for eight days after an e-cigarette exploded in his face, “sending burning debris and battery acid into his mouth, face and eyes.” Three months later, another e-cigarette exploded in a person’s mouth “causing severe burns, lost teeth and part of tongue.” That e-cigarette had been modified by the user.

In 2013, an e-cigarette explosion in the user’s hand caused serious burns and smoke inhalation. A “blowtorch fire” inside a car while an e-cigarette was charging sent debris into the person’s lap, causing severe burns. Hot fragments from another explosion inside a car ignited a baby’s car seat.

Other explosions ignited beds, pillows, curtains and rugs, with one person receiving burns putting out a fire.  

Cynthia Cabrera, executive director of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, said such cases are taken seriously but “millions of former smokers across the United States and overseas continue to use these products as intended and found vaping to be a significant alternative to combustible cigarettes.” The association also said most battery explosions and fires have involved those used to power cameras, cell phones and lap-top computers, among others, and “this is more of a battery issue than a vapor product-specific issue.” 

In October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed e-cigarette regulations to the Office of Budget Management to establish product standards. “We are proposing to include components and parts” in the regulations to reduce such dangers, FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said.

Copyright 2016 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
All Rights Reserved 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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