In February, a Houston TV station reported the story of a man who was driving when an e-cigarette battery exploded in his pocket. The battery melted a section of his pants and severely burned his leg before it fell to the floor and ignited the floorboard. Luckily, he was able to pull off the road and get out of the car.
That frightening incident is one of many involving e-cigarette batteries. The U.S. Fire Administration released a report in October 2014 stating 25 e-cigarette battery fires or explosions had occurred since 2009. At the time, the USFA estimated about 2.5 million people were e-cigarette users and predicted the number of users – and battery failures – would likely grow. That prediction seems to be correct. A doctor at the Harborview Medical Center’s trauma and burn unit in Seattle said in March 2016 that the unit was treating about one person a month for e-cigarette battery burns.
Lack of Regulations
E-cigarettes use lithium-ion batteries – the same type of battery that caused several Samsung Note 7 phones to explode or catch fire. But unlike phones, which clearly fall under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, federal regulators have been slow to decide which agency should oversee e-cigarettes. The CPSC does have jurisdiction over the liquid nicotine in e-cigs, but no regulations apply to the manufacture of e-cig batteries. And that means there is no law compelling manufacturers to report injuries or defects, or to issue a recall for defective devices.
The CPSC has reported several product recalls in which manufacturers learned lithium-ion batteries in their devices were exploding or catching fire. Recalled devices included phones, laptops, flashlights, toys, and more.
Often, lithium-ion batteries malfunctioned due to overcharging, being connected to an incompatible charger, or due to a short circuit (which was the cause of the Samsung battery failures). Low-quality batteries may also be more likely to combust.
A man who was injured when his e-cig battery exploded in his pocket said he had coins in his pocket at the time, and while the coins may have contributed to the battery’s malfunction, he said there was no warning label on the e-cig packaging warning of such a hazard. As of May 2016, a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule requires e-cig manufacturers to include warning labels, but only about nicotine content.
The Complications of Technology
When new consumer technology emerges, it may be so unlike any other product that it’s difficult to classify. That’s why there’s been such a long delay in developing comprehensive rules for e-cigs. They’re a consumer product, and they contain nicotine, but they’re not technically cigarettes in the traditional sense. The same regulatory confusion arose when hoverboards first entered the market. The two-wheeled devices didn’t fit neatly into any category, and cities and towns enacted their own laws about hoverboards – some cities outlawed them, while others decided they could be used in bicycle lanes.
E-cigarette battery explosions are rare, given the number of people who use the devices without incident. But that doesn’t mean regulators should ignore the problem of combustible batteries.