In May 2018, a 38-year-old man named Tallmadge Wakeman D'Elia and known as "Wake" was killed at home by an exploding vape pen or e-cigarette. A fatal wound to his head was found by the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner to be caused by two projectiles from the vape pen entering his cranium. He also suffered a wound on his top lip and widespread body burns. D’Elia’s body was discovered after a fire alarm went off in his building. While there have been hundreds of other e-cig explosions and incidents, typically attributed to battery issues, this may be the first directly-correlated fatality.
E-cigs are devices that deliver heated liquid to users in aerosol form. The liquid typically contains nicotine, flavors and other varying chemical components and the devices are often marketed and used as an alternative to traditional tobacco products like cigarettes and cigars.
Between 2009 and 2016, there were 195 e-cigarette fires and explosions incidents in America, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, some of which involved bodily harm.
E-cigs come in hundreds of varieties. There are many types and sizes, and larger units are more likely to have battery problems, Thomas Kiklas, the chief financial officer of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, told CNN.
D’Elia was using a device called a Mech Works that falls on the larger end of the spectrum, distributed by a company called Smok-E Mountain. The brand’s manufacturer is located in Cebu City in the Philippines. The device was reportedly a “mod” or modified pen, which often lack safety features like computer chips to regulate their temperature.
The two major causes of dramatic failures with the larger units are overcharging of the battery and then the shorting of the battery. Lithium-ion batteries fail in other devices as well, but in a laptop, it's on your lap. In this case, with an e-vapor product, it's close to the face.
According to the CNN article, battery-related safety precautions vapers can take include replacing wet or damaged batteries, using the batteries’ official charger, and being sure the charger has an auto-shut-off. Users are also advised not to carry batteries alone out of their case.
While the other health effects of using vape pens is still being studied, early research has found using them to inhale chemicals is popular, especially among youth, and does pose risks. The National Institute of Health finds that vape pens can contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals.
In 2015, about 38 percent of high schoolers and 13 percent of middle schoolers had tried e-cigs, the Center for Disease Control reports. It also found that in 2014, 12.6 percent of adults had used them. A 2016 U.S. Surgeon General report revealed:
… that the flavors in e-cigarettes are one of the main reasons youth use them, e-cigarette aerosol is not safe and that e-cigarette use is strongly associated with the use of other tobacco products among youth and young adults.