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Deadly vape explosion highlights safety gaps

Deadly vape explosion highlights safety gaps


Explosions are rare, but potentially fatal

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A mechanical tube mod with a rebuildable dripping atomizer and a bottle of vape juice.
A mechanical tube mod with a rebuildable dripping atomizer and a bottle of vape juice.
Photo by Christian Mazza/The Verge

An exploding vape killed a 24-year-old man named William Brown in Texas last week, CBS DFW reports — highlighting the ongoing lack of safety standards for electronic cigarettes.

Shattered fragments from the vape sliced open a blood vessel in Brown’s neck that delivers blood to the brain, and he died at the hospital from a stroke on January 29th. His death is a sad reminder that e-cigarettes are still largely unregulated. The FDA announced in July 2017 that it plans to come up with product standards to prevent battery explosions. But those standards are still under development.

The vape that killed Brown exploded in the parking lot outside a shop called Smoke & Vape DZ, where Brown went “to ask for help using his vape pen,” according to CNN. The local medical examiner’s office has not released the manufacturer of the device responsible for Brown’s death. “We are still investigating this. We have the manner and cause of death, but it’s still pending investigations and further testing,” a spokesperson told The Verge.

According to CBS DFW, Brown was using a type of vape called a mechanical mod. Generally, mechanical mods are pretty simple devices that have no internal safety features, according to Gregory Conley, president of the advocacy group the American Vaping Association. Pressing a button sends power from the batteries to the atomizer, which creates the vapor. Other devices shut off if they get too warm — which could precede a battery explosion, he says. But with mechanical mods, Conley says, “there is no warning system other than that the device becomes very hot.”

These safety issues have caused mechanical mods to wane in popularity. “They are a shrinking minority portion of the market because more and more vape shops are declining to even sell them,” Conley says. A mechanical mod was also implicated in the death of Tallmadge D’Elia in Florida last year, according to The New York Times. The local medical examiner told the Times that D’Elia, who had been badly burned, had died from a “projectile wound to the head.”

We’ve known that vapes can explode for awhile now. A year ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, published a comprehensive review about the public health effects of vaping — including the dangers of exploding vapes. “There is conclusive evidence that e-cigarette devices can explode and cause burns and projectile injuries,” the report says (emphasis theirs). “Such risk is significantly increased when batteries are of poor quality, stored improperly, or modified by users.”

The US Fire Administration (USFA) is also keeping track, and counted 195 media reports of exploding vapes between 2009 and 2016. The USFA points to lithium-ion batteries in vapes as “a new and unique hazard,” according to a 2017 report. “The shape and construction of electronic cigarettes can make them (more likely than other products with lithium-ion batteries) behave like ‘flaming rockets’ when a battery fails,” the report says.

The Food and Drug Administration is working on standards for battery safety in vapes. But right now, the FDA doesn’t require safety testing of devices that hit the market before August 2016. That’s supposed to change after 2022, when companies have to apply for the FDA’s permission to stay on shelves. In the meantime, however, vapes occasionally explode in people’s pockets and faces. The FDA, which did not comment on the record, does, however, have safety tips to try to prevent those vape explosions. And if your vape explodes anyway, the FDA asks that you report it to them.

Even as the FDA cracks down on e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers and limits the sale of flavored products, the current lack of safety standards for vape batteries is an alarming oversight for the millions of people who vape in the US. “The FDA has robust authority to implement standards for what can or cannot be included in tobacco products, how they operate, how they are constructed, and how they are manufactured,” says Desmond Jenson, an attorney with the Public Health Law Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “There are currently no such standards.”