E-cigarette lithium-ion battery explosions on the rise

Published: Apr. 29, 2016 at 5:23 PM EDT|Updated: May. 13, 2016 at 2:54 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Videos keep popping up of e-cigarette batteries exploding in pockets, hands, even faces. E-cig smokers are suffering severe burns.

A Chesterfield woman ended up at the VCU Burn Center when it happened to her.

Polly Griffin started vaping to end her 24-year addiction to cigarettes.

"That thing never left my mouth. My friends call it my binky," said Griffin.

Griffin stopped a few months ago after vaping for years.

"I was a half a second away from it blowing up in my face," said Griffin.

She works overnights and had just woken up. As she reached for a bottled water on her bedside table, she accidentally knocked her vaporizer on the floor.

"It had gone between my night stand, and I leaned over to pick it up," Griffin said.

As she brought it up to her face, the battery inside her vape exploded.

"It went 'psssst chooooooo!', and it took off and shot up about 10 feet out my bedroom door, hit the wall, and in the process, it set my carpet on fire [and] a towel on fire," said Griffin. "It singed my fan blades as it went by."

The battery fireball burned not only her mattress and the carpet, but also her hand. She had second and third-degree burns on her palm.

"I sat there and watched this giant ball of flame shoot across the room, and I was in shock, like 'what just happened,'" said Griffin.

Griffin ended up at the VCU Evans-Haynes Burn Center. Dr. Michael Feldman is the director. He says over the last five years, he's noticed a gradual increase in the number of patients admitted with injuries from vaping battery explosions.

"We have seen some first-degree, but most of what we see are second and third-degree burns, and we've had patients who needed surgery because of it," said Feldman.

More of these incidents are being caught on camera. In security footage from a Kentucky gas station, Josh Hamilton was standing in line when his e-cig battery exploded in his pocket. Hamilton frantically ran outside to get his burning pants off.

The phenomenon even caught the attention of the U.S. Fire Administration. The agency found 25 incidents between 2009 and 2014. It called these cases rare, but found "the shape and construction of the devices can make them more likely than other products with ion lithium batteries to become flaming rockets."

Lithium-ion batteries are also used in laptops, cell phones, computers, flashlights and since 2002, there have been nearly 50 recalls in these devices due to explosion or fire risk.

Dr. Feldman says he's learned one thing from the injuries he's seen.

"I would encourage people to not modify this equipment," said Feldman. "To use the instructions, to use it the way that the instructions tell you to."

Polly Griffin is too terrified to pick up another vape at the moment. She shared her story so more people will think about battery safety.

"I want other people to know the dangers, and I don't want this to happen to somebody else," said Griffin. "I mean, it terrified me. I know how bad my hand hurt. I couldn't imagine getting it next to my face again."

Jay Taylor, owner of Voltage Vapin', understood Griffin's concerns.

"I say it is very traumatic if something like this happens," said Taylor.

Taylor says at his store, battery safety is a number-one priority. He does not let a new customer leave without a lesson.

"It is [the] utmost importance," said Taylor. "We've taught it since day one."

He's a big believer in the vaping industry and founded the Virginia Smoke Free Association last year.

"Vaping works," said Taylor. "Vaping helps get people away from traditional tobacco."

He says you should stop using your e-cig if your battery is damaged or dented, or if you notice a tear in your battery cover.

Some vape shops will even re-wrap a torn battery cover for you. It doesn't cost much and can make a big difference.

Shops also sell different plastic covers to protect your batteries. Taylor says if you have any questions about your vaping battery, go straight to a shop. If your local shop can't answer that question, then he says to go to somebody who can.

In Griffin's case, she never altered her device or battery, but it did fall on the floor.

Lithium-ion battery safety checklist:

  • Batteries with torn wrappers need to be replaced immediately.
  • Excessive heat and cold are bad for batteries. 59 F is the best temperature. Don’t keep any devices with lithium-ion batteries in your car in the summer or winter.
  • Don’t keep batteries in your pocket with loose change or keys.
  • Keep batteries in approved battery cases when not in use.
  • Keep your battery charger in a place where you can keep an eye on it.
  • Batteries eventually wear our and need to be replaced every 3-6 months depending on the use and battery quality.

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