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Fire Hazard?

With e-cigarettes there is no lighter, no matches, no burning embers and no smoke. They are powered by a battery that within seconds turns a liquid flavoring – and in many case nicotine – into a vapor that can be inhaled. In the process, the e-cigs themselves typically remain cool to the touch and do not create a haze of tobacco smoke.

So does that make them firesafe? Not completely, according to a 2014 study done by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). Based on media reports they gathered, the USFA found that over the course of six years – from 2009 to 2014 – e-cigs were the believed culprit in 25 separate fires and explosions in the U.S. The study was published by the USFA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The study also determined the following, among other things:

• Fires and/or explosions caused as a result of e-cigs are rare.

• Most of the incidents occurred during the charging of the battery.

• Of the fires that occurred, 10 injuries – including two serious burns – were reported.

• No deaths occurred.

The USFA decided to conduct the study after fire officials read about several fires attributed to e-cigs. The administration wanted to look into the matter to see if the growing popularity of e-cigs would result in more fire calls for firefighters across the country. Fortunately, the study shows that a proportional increase is not likely.

According to the study, 20 of the 25 incidents that occurred during the six-year span happened while the battery was plugged into a charger. In two other cases, e-cigs reportedly exploded while in use. One other incident occurred during transport in a cargo aircraft. It is unknown whether the e-cigs in the other two cases were being used, being charged or not in use.

Like many cell phones, e-cigs have lithium-ion batteries that need to be recharged. Traditionally, e-cigs are charged via a USB port and come with the appropriate charger needed to revive a dead lithium-ion battery. The device can be charged by plugging the battery into any number of USB-ports, such as those on laptops and desktop computers. Adapters also are made so that a USB charger can be used in wall outlets and automobiles.

For their part, lithium-ion batteries have been found to be largely safe. However, the batteries do occasionally fail and when that happens a fire or explosion can be sparked. The USFA determined that in most of the cases researched for their study the fires were preventable. It appears in the majority of those incidents that users were not using approved power adapters to recharge their e-cigs. 

"Few, if any, consumers understand that not all USB ports are 'created equal.' The voltage and current provided by USB ports can vary significantly," the report stated. “The media reports strongly suggest that many of the failures occurred while the battery was charging with power supplies that were not provided by the manufacturer." 

"This fact highlights a need for user education.”

Based on their information, the media often referred to the incidents involving e-cigs as explosions because in some cases eyewitnesses reported hearing a loud noise followed by the e-cigs breaking apart into pieces and flying several feet. These burning, flying pieces sparked fires when they landed on flammable items, such as bedding, couches and drapes. Fortunately, most of the fires were quickly extinguished by someone nearby or went out on their own, resulting in little property damage.

After completing the study, the USFA made the following conclusions:

• “The lithium-ion batteries used to power the devices can fail."

• “Battery failures, manifested as small explosions and fires, have occurred.” 

• “Considering the vast number of products in the field that use lithium-ion batteries, however, it is clear that the failure rates are low.”

• “It is reasonable to expect that the number of battery failure incidents will increase as the number of lithium-ion batteries in use continues to grow, even as the failure rate per device remains constant or declines.” 

• “Continuing improvements in battery safety designs by the industry could offset this expected increase.” 

• “The fact that, statistically, so few of these devices are failing in the ways described by the media reports suggests strongly that e-cigarette manufacturers have been largely successful in preventing battery fires.”

To limit future fire risk, the USFA suggested that e-cig makers, industry groups, users and fire officials better “stress the importance of proper charging practices.” 

Currently, most e-cigs manufacturers in their user manuals explain the importance of using the right charger and using it as recommended. However, the USFA suggested that stronger warnings by e-cig makers might be more useful in preventing accidental fires. They also suggested that manufacturers of e-cigs consider moving away from using a USB-type charger because when used incorrectly it can allow the battery to be overcharged and potentially dangerous. They recommended that all e-cigs include “protection circuits” to prevent overcharge, too. 

So, as an e-cigarette user or someone who is thinking about converting from traditional tobacco cigarettes to e-cigs, what should you do? The USFA makes a simple recommendation:

“Always use the charging appliance that comes with the unit and follow the manufacturer’s instructions,” the report stated. “Plugging an e-cigarette into a ‘standard’ USB port to recharge may result in an explosion and/or fire.”