A North Texas man is worried people may be at risk after he was badly burned when his e-cigarette batteries exploded and caught fire in his pocket.
About 10 percent of Americans use e-cigarettes, according to a Reuters poll conducted this summer.
But consumers may not realize they’re using a device that an FDA spokesman told us is at this point is federally unregulated. The injured Flower Mound man believes neither the e-cigarette industry, nor the government, are doing enough to keep consumers safe.
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When NBC 5 Consumer Investigator Deanna Dewberry first met 21-year old Christopher Robran in May, the young man was still in disbelief. He was shocked that his new-found hobby literally blew up in his pants.
“It sounded like a fuse going off,” said Robran. "And then there's like fireworks going off in my pants."
His father held up the blue jeans with a large hole in one pants leg – the edges singed from the burning battery.
“Kind of brings me back to when it happened,” said Robran quietly.
He remembers having met friends for lunch and was carrying his e-cigarette in one hand and two extra batteries in his pocket.
“So I had my keys in there as well, and I'm waiting to talk to the lady at the front desk,” Robran recounted.
Then suddenly he said he saw flames shooting out of his pants as he stood in the middle of the restaurant.
"So I'm pulling my pants down, and my two friends come running over to me,” said Robran.
Before they could extinguish the flames, he had suffered second and third degree burns. He said the pain is excruciating.
"I can't walk because the burn is on top of my muscle on my thigh," he explained, shaking his head
This is not the first time an e-cig battery explosion has made headlines. It’s so serious the U.S. Fire Administration studied the issue to provide information for fire departments across the country.
The document references security video showing an e-cig that reportedly blew up in a pub in the U.K. It also references 25 explosions in the U.S. that includes a horrifying incident in Florida where an e-cig blew up in a man's face and injured his teeth and tongue.
The report points out that while the explosions are rare, there is "no regulation, code or law that applies to the safety of the electronics or batteries in e cigarettes."
"There's no instructions that come with batteries at all," Robran pointed out as he showed us one of the purple cylindrical batteries. The lithium-ion batteries were manufactured by EFEST, a company in China's Guangdong province.
NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit called the company. A spokesperson told us the company does not believe the battery was defective. Instead it points to something else Robran had in his pocket – his keys.
The company theorizes the metal likely touched the lithium ion batteries' exposed contacts - causing a short circuit and explosion. An EFEST spokesman told me the company has gotten similar complaints from consumers who carried extra batteries in their pockets and, in response, posted a warning on its website. It also sells a battery carrying case. But consumers like Robran question whether that’s enough. Afterall, he bought the batteries from an online retailer. He would have no reason to check for warnings on the manufacturer’s website.
Ray Story is the CEO and founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an e-cigarette trade group working to shape regulations in the U.S. and abroad. He spoke to NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit via Skype from his Amsterdam office. Story said it stands to reason e-cig users would carry an extra battery with them because the battery for their device is likely to die if used a lot during the day.
"There are some warning labels that could be very helpful to the public to warn them of potential danger when they carry them in their pocket.” He believes that’s especially important for e-cig users because of the nature of the lithium-ion batteries used in the electronic devices.
"In many cases, these batteries are far more powerful than the AA and AAA [batteries} that our batteries are accustomed to," said Story.
But mandating warning labels is difficult he said because the industry is largely unregulated. The U.S. Fire Marshal points to another danger. Many e-cig batteries have a USB port for connecting the device to a power adapter. Consumers mistakenly believe the USB port of their e-cig battery can be used with power adapters for their other devices which can lead to overcharging the battery. That was the suspected cause of 20 explosions cited in the US Fire Administration report leading the authors to suggest “e-cigarette manufacturers should consider changing to a different style of electrical connection,”
Absent regulation, some retailers are taking consumer safety in their own hands. Christopher Adams, owner of Xtreme Vapes in Plano makes customers read and sign a sheet explaining how to charge and carry the powerful battery. NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit repeatedly reached out to the retailer. It didn’t respond to our emails even though we did receive an automated response indicating our emails had been received.
"We also have our employees explain proper battery safety as far as using them what not to do," said Adams.
Robran said he had no such instruction from myvaporstore.com, the online retailer that sold him his battery. In September, four months after the explosion, Robran’s leg is still is not completely healed.
"I want everyone to know about the dangers of these, and they need to take precautions if they're looking into buying these,” he said.
EFEST, the Chinese battery manufacturer, vows to investigate Robran’s case. So who’s looking out for your safety? The FDA wrote new rules to regulate e-cigarettes last year, and a spokesperson told us the agency “moving expeditiously” toward finalizing those rules. But he gave no timetable. For now, consumer safety is largely left to the consumer. But the FDA is still collecting consumer complaints about e-cigarettes even though it’s not yet regulating the devices. You can report adverse events online t HHS Safety Reporting Portal or by calling 1-800-FDA-1088.