Electronic cigarettes are receiving favorable notice as a (purportedly) healthier alternative to traditional tobacco products. Yet one potential danger posed by e-cigarettes is drawing significant concern from the medical community: Burns caused by battery failure.
Let's take a closer look at how these injuries occur, and why the dangers they present may be underestimated.
E-cigarettes are big business...but are the risks understood?
Since their introduction roughly a decade ago, e-cigarettes have been a high-growth industry: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 13-percent of U.S. adults have tried an e-cigarette -- a number that represents tens of millions of people.
The process by which these products work is fairly straightforward: E-cigarettes approximate conventional cigarettes by using battery power to vaporize a liquid nicotine-infused solution. Flavor, strength and other variables can be adjusted to suit user preferences.
Because it has been marketed as a healthier alternative to tobacco smoking, "vaping" has quickly become big business. Yet while there have been studies comparing the relative health dangers of inhaled tobacco vs nicotine vapor, the risk of burns caused by e-cigarette malfunction is just now coming into clearer focus.
How do these injuries occur?
Most e-cigarettes use rechargeable lithium ion batteries as a power source. Should these devices experience mechanical damage, heat damage, or be poorly manufactured, a phenomenon called "thermal runaway" can occur, potentially causing a serious personal injury to the user.
Thermal runaway occurs when the temperature inside a battery begins rising dramatically as a result of reactions between lithium electrolytes and electrodes. Once this process begins, pressure builds inside the battery, which can result in the ignition of battery components -- ultimately leading to an explosion which can result in a devastating burn injury.
Because users often carry their devices in their pockets, they can suffer severe burns to their legs and backs -- injuries that can require weeks of hospitalization and painful treatments, including skin grafts. Cases of e-cigarettes exploding while in the mouths of users have also been reported.
A recent study in the medical journal Burns illustrates the dangers of e-cigarette malfunctions, saying the risk of explosions and burns caused by the devices is now a "genuine concern." The study, which examined the optimal treatment options for serious e-cigarette burns, called for a minimum quality standard for batteries and urged e-cigarette makers to invest in research and quality control in order to lower the risk to consumers.
The study also suggests e-cigarette users take steps to mitigate risk. While there is no way to guarantee that e-cigarettes won't malfunction, users are encouraged to never carry metallic objects in their pockets along with an e-cigarette battery. Overcharging a battery -- or storing it in a warm area for a sustained period -- may also raise the risk of ignition.
Those who have suffered a personal injury as the result of a burn may also wish to consult an attorney, in order to better understand their rights under the law.