At least 14 people — including two this month — have been treated or hospitalized at Harborview Medical Center since October for serious burns and other injuries caused when e-cigarette batteries ignited or exploded.

Share story

Reports of devastating burns caused by exploding e-cigarette batteries have continued to climb at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where at least 14 victims have been treated or hospitalized since the fall.

Trauma experts say they’re hoping the federal Food and Drug Administration’s new regulatory authority over the devices will help halt the dangerous trend.

“The prevalence of these injuries is not decreasing,” said Dr. Elisha Brownson, a burn and critical-care fellow at Harborview, who has been tracking the injuries. “We were seeing one a month. Since March, we’ve seen at least two a month.”

Already this month, the Harborview Burn Center has treated two victims harmed when the batteries that power the devices caught fire.

Brooks Stroman, 34, of Kirkland, was at home Sunday when an e-cigarette battery in his back pocket ignited, leaving him with third-degree burns on the back of his thigh.

“It was pretty painful,” said Stroman, who was treated at Harborview and is waiting for doctors to determine whether he needs surgery.

An Oak Harbor man, 53, was treated at Harborview Medical Center after an e-cigarette battery exploded in his pocket, burning his thighs and genitals.  (Courtesy of Harborview, with patient permission)
An Oak Harbor man, 53, was treated at Harborview Medical Center after an e-cigarette battery exploded in his pocket, burning his thighs and genitals. (Courtesy of Harborview, with patient permission)

Other recent cases include a 2-year-old Seattle boy burned in March when his mother’s device burned bedding, and a 53-year-old Oak Harbor man who had an e-cigarette battery in his front pocket when it ignited last month — leaving him with burns over 10 percent of his body, including his thighs and genitals.

“It was kind of surreal at first,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used. “I didn’t realize everyone was looking at me. Then I looked down and realized it was me that exploded and was on fire.”

Victims are showing up not only with burns caused by flame but with chemical burns from the lithium-ion batteries used to power the devices, which turn nicotine-laced liquid into a mist or vapor that users inhale.

And Western Washington isn’t alone. Brad Wilmoth, a lawyer representing the mother of the burned toddler, said his St. Louis firm has added 15 e-cigarette clients, including the local case, since November.

“We have been getting a number of referrals from across the United States,” he said.

Federal officials, too, have new evidence that the problem, while rare, is getting worse.

Scientists at the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products identified 92 reports of e-cigarettes overheating, igniting or exploding between 2009 and September 2015, according to a paper published in March in the journal Tobacco Control. Additional reports, which have not been published, show 134 cases as of January, according to an FDA spokesman.

The actual number of incidents involving what the FDA calls electronic nicotine delivery systems or ENDS, is unknown and probably underreported, the study said. But there is no doubt the incidents are serious.

“Some events have resulted in life-threatening injury, permanent disfigurement or disability and major property damage, suggesting the need for ongoing surveillance and risk mitigation,” the study found.

More comprehensive reporting could help determine root causes for the problem, it added. On Wednesday, the FDA urged consumers who have problems with e-cigarettes, vape products, hookahs, cigars or tobacco to report safety problems on an agency website, www.safetyreporting.hhs.gov.

The FDA’s findings come at a time when nearly 13 percent of U.S. adults have tried e-cigarettes at least once and nearly 4 percent are regular users, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And they come as the FDA finalized a sweeping new rule that extends the agency’s authority to all tobacco products — and includes e-cigarettes in that category. The rule applies to products on the market after Feb. 15, 2007, which covers nearly all vaping devices in use.

Additional guidelinesunder review would recommend that applications for devices include detailed information about the batteries and specific plans for addressing use and misuse that could lead to harm.

“The FDA remains concerned about adverse events associated with the use of ENDS, such as e-cigarettes, including overheating and exploding batteries as described in the news,” agency spokesman Michael Felberbaum said in an email.

Comments on the new guidelines will be accepted through July 11.

But vaping-industry advocates dismiss reports of fires and explosions, saying they can occur with any device that uses a lithium-ion battery, including computers and cellphones. And they argue that tobacco cigarettes certainly cause injuries — and deaths.

“How many reports has the FDA released on those killed or injured every year by the thousands of fires caused by cigarettes?” Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said in an email.

Tobacco cigarettes are linked to 3,000 injuries and nearly 1,000 deaths each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Conley and his supporters contend that vaping devices help tobacco smokers quit the habit and the new FDA regulations will be so complicated and expensive that they “will crush” nearly all of the small businesses that make up the industry.

Instead, vaping advocates are counting on an amendment attached to the Department of Agriculture’s pending appropriations bill, known as the Cole-Bishop Amendment, which would change the FDA’s date in the new rule, exempting most manufacturers from the strict regulations.

That has health experts including Brownson worried that the FDA’s oversight won’t be thorough enough or occur quickly enough to stop new e-cigarette injuries.

“We can’t support the use of e-cigarettes at this time,” she said. “Our patients have had little or no warning prior to these explosions. Each of the patients who’ve come in never thought it would happen to them.”