There appears to be a rise in burn incidents among people using electronic cigarettes. The incidents occur as a result of battery failure causing ignition, which can lead to severe thermal injury, researchers caution in a report published online in the journal Burns (May 2017).
This trend was identified by burn surgeon, Dr. Gary Vercruysse and colleagues, who noticed similarities in burn injuries based on the following cases at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz.:
The first incident involved a 58-year-old man with severe burns to his left thigh who arrived at Banner-University Medical Center for treatment.
A few weeks later, a 20-year-old man with severe burns to his right thigh arrived at the hospital’s emergency room for care.
Not long after, a third man, 37 years of age, presented with a severe burn to his left thigh and buttocks.
After noticing similarities in the injuries, Dr. Vercruysse, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, started to ask those patients and ones with similar wounds how they got burned.
“They all told me basically the same thing,” he says. “They had an electronic cigarette in their pocket, then they started feeling a lot of heat in their pocket and then they couldn’t get their pants off or get the device out of their pocket quickly enough.”
Dr. Vercruysse started perusing through medical literature and noticed that no one had written about this topic before. So, he and his colleagues developed a case report describing the initial three patients they had treated for e-cigarette burns.
Lithium ion battery failure caused the burn injuries
In their report, Dr. Vercruysse points to lithium ion battery failure as the culprit for the burn injuries.
“These cases are among the first recognizing thermal injuries sustained from the lithium-ion batteries contained in electronic cigarettes, which means there’s a need for increased awareness of the safety hazards associated with e-cigarettes,” says Dr. Vercruysse, who was quoted in a press release.
“Since then, we’ve seen several patients, and only one hasn’t [needed] a skin graft,” he says.
The severity of a burn, explains Dr. Vercruysse, is dependent on how thick the particular area of skin is and how many calories of heat come into contact with the skin and for how long.
“So, you can have a relatively small number of calories contact you for a long time, and you get a burn, or you can have a relatively large number of calories contact you for a relatively short time and you get a burn,” says Dr. Vercruysse. “With these cases, there were relatively a lot of calories and the skin isn’t that thick, so you get a bad burn.”
“I think in general the public thinks that e-cigarettes are somehow better for you than tobacco cigarettes, but they still deliver nicotine, which isn’t good for you, and this particular product has a defect where the battery can malfunction,” says Dr. Vercruysse.