Earlier last year, a young man from Albany, New York, was partaking of “vape” with his electronic cigarette when the device exploded in his mouth, taking out several of his teeth, ripping a hole in his tongue, and causing severe burns on his hands. He later described the experience: “[It was] like a M80 bomb went off in my mouth.” In May of 2016, an unidentified minor in New Jersey also had an e-cigarette explode in her mouth, causing severe burn injuries to her lips and gums.

These examples of oral injuries caused by exploding e-cigarettes are horrific, but the truly frightening fact is that one does not have to actually be smoking an e-cigarette in order to get hurt.

A man from the western Illinois community of Bushnell suffered multiple burns last September when the lithium ion battery in the e-cigarette he was carrying in his pants pocket exploded. The explosion caused injuries to his hand, thigh and genitals. About the same time, a New Jersey man’s leg caught on fire after his device exploded. He said, “I heard a hissing sound, and then the explosion and then the pain. I looked down and my leg was on fire and I started running.”

Several months prior to that, a Kentucky man suffered similar injuries while carrying an e-cigarette in his pocket. One high school student in Alabama suffered facial burns after a classmate’s own e-cigarette blew up, propelling the hot battery into his cheek.

Since 2008, there have been dozens of such incidents reported. Why is this happening? According to Tom Kiklas of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, the problem is with the lithium batteries that are used. “Most are mismatched to the charger,” he says. He also says that when carried in pockets, the batteries can rub against metal coins, causing a short circuit. However, it should also be pointed out that 90 percent of e-cigarettes are manufactured in China, where materials and workmanship are questionable and regulations all but non-existent.

Greg Bentley, a California-based litigation attorney who represents clients injured by e-cigarettes, says these victims suffer “horrific injuries…who were simply using a product the way it was intended to be used.” Bentley adds, “This problem is going to continue until the industry checks itself and makes sure the product is safe.”

Unfortunately, that industry – which makes in excess of $3 billion a year from the sale of e-cigarettes – has been maintaining a low profile in hopes that reports of these injuries will go unnoticed. To date, the industry has been fighting attempts at regulation. Although the FDA enacted rules last year to prevent e-cigarettes from being sold to minors, the agency’s main concern was to stop underage people from getting nicotine delivery devices. So far, there has been no regulatory action regarding these accidents, though Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called for an investigation and a possible FDA recall.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.