Vape pen explosion: how dangerous are e-cigarettes?

Florida man killed when device blew up in his face and launched shrapnel into his skull

Man dead after vape pen explosion in Florida
(Image credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

A man died when the vape pen he was smoking exploded into fragments that lodged in his skull, a post-mortem has found.

Tallmadge D’Elia, 38, also suffered burns over 80% of his body in a fire caused by the exploding e-cigarette, according to forensic officials.

The 38-year-old television producer was found by firefighters inside his burning home, in the Florida beach resort of St Petersburg, reports Sky News. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner recorded the official cause of death as “projectile wound of head”.

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According to the London Evening Standard, the shocking incident, on 5 May, is believed to be the first ever vape-related death in the US.

Although it is not clear from the post-mortem how the e-cigarette exploded, D’Elia’s death has triggered fresh concerns that vaping may pose more immediate safety dangers alongside the potentially harmful chemicals inhaled by users.

What caused the vape pen to explode?

Speaking to ABC Action News, a representative of the vape pen’s manufacturer, Smok-E Mountain, blamed the explosion on the device’s battery.

That explanation seems plausible, according to Metro. “The biggest thing to remember is that e-cigarettes do not randomly catch fire – the two main factors behind vape explosions are the quality of your device components and how you maintain your equipment,” the newspaper says.

“It’s not the vape as a whole that is behind fires or explosions – the most common cause is the battery.”

Most vapes are powered by a lithium-ion battery, which can pose a fire hazard if left in pressurised areas.

Lithium-ion batteries have also been known to catch fire when they overheat. In 2016, Samsung was forced to halt the manufacture of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones following a series of reports of the batteries exploding.

How likely is it to happen again?

The vape pen that D’Elia was using was modified, “meaning it allowed the user more access to the battery and did not regulate the voltage in the same way as other e-cigarettes”, says the BBC.

The president of the American Vaping Association told The New York Times that “most other e-cigarettes have more safety features than so-called mechanical mods”.

According to the US Fire Administration, there were 195 separate incidents of explosions and fires involving an e-cigarette between 2009 and 2016. Although none were fatal, 133 resulted in acute injuries, of which 38 were severe.

How can you stop it happening?

Not all battery failures can be prevented, “but the likelihood of an e-cigarette battery failing is statistically low”, says tech website Lifehacker.

The US Food and Drug Administration has issued guidelines for vape manufacturers that say the product labelling “should include text or a graphic to show users should recharge the product only with specified chargers to minimise the risk of battery failure”.

Other tips for making sure your e-cigarette doesn’t explode include “buying a quality vape pen from a reputable manufacturer”, says Wired. “Check the parts - if they look and feel cheap, they probably are,” the website adds.

Vapers are also advised not to leave the device charging overnight. “It’s not rocket science – providing an electrical power source with more energy than it needs will result in a higher risk of fire or explosion,” says Metro.

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