Electronic Cigarettes a Potential Fire Hazard

The lithium-ion battery contained in e-cigarettes present the biggest fire hazard

While viewed as a healthy and safer alternative to tobacco smoking, the advent of e-cigarettes has created its own set of hazards. E-cigarettes use lithium-ion batteries to power a heating element, which vaporizes a liquid, resulting in the simulated “smoke” of a tobacco cigarette. The lithium-ion battery presents the biggest fire hazard while in use and while being charged.

Injuries and damages caused by e-cigarettes can be significant

The U.S. Fire Administration’s 2016 report, “Electronic Cigarette Fires and Explosions in the United States 2009-2016” identified 195 reported e-cigarette fires and explosion events since 2009. This number may seem insignificant given the millions of e-cigarettes purchased in the U.S., however, the injuries and damages caused by these events can be significant. The failure of a lithium-ion battery begins with an internal short circuit, which starts a process called thermal runaway. The chemicals inside the battery begin to heat up to the point where the temperature exceeds 1,000° F. At that point, the chemicals can ignite or even explode when exposed to the oxygen in the air. The failure can be sudden and more than capable of igniting any surrounding flammable materials.

Electronic cigarettes and the human factor

Aside from a potential defectively manufactured battery, overheating can be caused by plugging e-cigarettes into incompatible charging units or exposure to high temperatures. Consumers have also attempted to modify e-cigarettes or construct their own using available parts and “how to” videos online. In another twist, consumers have harvested batteries from old laptop or power tool battery packs or purchased aftermarket batteries online, which may not be suitable for the product. Recently, UL promulgated Standard 8139, “Electrical Systems of Electronic Cigarettes” to evaluate the safety of electrical and battery systems for e-cigarettes. The purchase and use of UL-listed products, while never a guarantee, should assist in reducing e-cigarette fire events.

The number of fire and explosion events may increase

With the increase in advertisement, sale, and use of e-cigarettes, it can be reasonably anticipated that the number of fire and explosion events will also increase. Front line adjusters and subrogation professionals should be aware of these issues during the investigation and inquire accordingly to identify responsible parties.