I-Team: Exploding E-cigarettes Prompt New Concerns About Industry Regulation

E-cigarettes are surging in popularity across the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 and 10 Americans have tried an e-cigarette. Despite the number of people using the products, the industry is largely unregulated -- and recent cases involving exploding devices have prompted calls to change that, an I-Team investigation has found.

Christopher Robran, a 21-year-old man whose e-cigarette batteries caught fire while in his pants, is among those questioning whether the government is keeping consumers safe.

The North Texas man says he placed his e-cigarette batteries in his jeans along with his keys a few months ago. He says he heard a loud noise coming from his pants, then he felt the searing pain of a fire burning through his jeans. First there were sparks. Then he said he saw actual flames.

"I'm pulling my pants down and my two friends came running over to me, pouring water over the batteries," Robran said.

The company that manufacturers the battery that exploded in his pants believes the batteries touched the keys that were in his pocket, sparking a reaction. The accident has happened enough times that the company addresses the problem on its website and posts a warning, urging users to beware.

Robran, who suffered second- and third-degree burns from the battery fire, says he wishes he had known that before. Months after the accident, he said, the burns still bother him.

"I can't walk because the burn is on top of my muscle and my thigh," Robran said. "I can't stand on it; the pain itself is so bad that i need painkillers."

Robran's case is not the only one making headlines. In September, a man from Georgia claimed an e-cigarette exploded in his mouth. And in March, a California man said an e-cigarette blew up in his hand.

The U.S. Fire Administration found such reports so troubling, it studied the issue to better inform users and fire departments across the country.

Its report on the subject listed 25 separate reported incidents since 2009, including two that caused serious burns. While acknowledging that fires or explosions caused by e-cigarettes are rare, the report found the shape and construction of the devices can make them more likely than other products with lithium-ion batteries to result in explosion or fire.

The report also said most of the fires it studied occurred while the e-cigarette was charging.

Spike Babaian, the owner of Vape New York who started the National Vapers club, says using improper chargers can put too much power into the e-cigarette. She encourages customers to use the proper chargers that come with the devices as well as the appropriate batteries.

The Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, which represents a wide cross-section of the smoke-free industry, including distributors, manufacturers, retailers and consumers, said millions of people continue to use e-cigarettes without any problems.

“While these incidents are taken very seriously, millions of former smokers across the United States and overseas continue to use these products as intended and have found vaping to be a significant alternative to combustible cigarettes,” the group said in a statement.

In October 2014, the FDA proposed sweeping rules to regulate e-cigarettes and their component parts. The agency is giving no timetable as to when these rules will take effect.

The FDA's proposed regulations, however, do not include consideration of the battery of electronics used in and with the devices, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, which recommended that e-cigarette manufacturers consider changing to a different style of electrical connection.

"The elimination of USB-type electrical connections on e-cigarettes will make it more difficult (but not impossible) for users to overcharge the batteries," the report said. "The inclusion of protection circuits into the e-cigarette device would improve battery safety."

The FDA encourages users to report adverse events involving e-cigarettes to the HHS Safety Reporting Portal online or by calling 1-800-FDA-1088.

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