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Commentary: Lithium ion batteries: the unknown killer lurking in your e-cigarettes

🕐 6 min read

There is no question that common-sense regulations are needed on the e-cigarette industry to balance the interests of safety, health and commerce. What we are now seeing is the equivalent of an unregulated oil boom where profits are prioritized over safety.

Although the hysteria and fanfare surrounding e-cigarettes today seems to center on underage tobacco use and the omnipresent JUUL, a relatively unknown and potentially fatal danger of e-cigarettes lurks much deeper in the batteries powering the devices.

E-cigarettes are often advertised as healthier alternatives to the traditional nicotine delivery systems we all know – such as cigarettes and pipes – and advertised by tobacco companies as “heat-not-burn.”

However, truth be told, we know very little about the effects of the electrically heated delivery of nicotine.

E-cigarettes were first patented in 2003 and became available for purchase in the United States around 2007.

As a result, little-to-no definitive research has been published concerning the long-term effects of heated nicotine delivery. Only further research and time will tell whether odd-ball effects, such as “popcorn lung” and other health-related issues, are created by these new products.

What is certain, however, are the personal injuries that some e-cigarettes have caused.

Recently, William Brown of Fort Worth died after an e-cigarette exploded and severed an artery in his neck. In October 2018, Scott Mann, another Fort Worth resident, suffered second- and third-degree burns when his e-cigarette exploded.

And these incidents are just in our backyard. Even more and tragic injuries related to e-cigarettes have been reported across the nation.

Although experts have not identified a single cause of these injuries, every injury seems to be related, at least in some way, to the e-cigarette’s power sources – lithium ion batteries.

E-cigarettes are electrically powered devices that heat a flavored nicotine fluid. Because they must be portable for the user, they are powered by batteries, most of which use lithium ion technology.

Some e-cigarettes, such as the JUUL, have an integrated lithium ion battery, but other e-cigarettes require the user to purchase the batteries separately.

This commentary focuses on the e-cigarettes that require the user to purchase separate batteries.

There are four main lithium ion battery manufacturers: Japan-based Sony and Panasonic, which provides batteries for Tesla, and South Korea-based LG and Samsung.

Most lithium ion batteries sold separately and used in e-cigarettes are cylindrical with a diameter and length of about 18 mm and 65 mm, respectively. The battery cylinder consists of wound layers of metal separated by a porous film holding a flammable or combustible electrolyte liquid.

Like common batteries such as AAA, AA, C or D, lithium ion batteries have varying ratings. However, unlike AAA or AA, two lithium ion batteries can be the same size yet have completely different power ratings.

A lithium ion battery is typically assigned three different power ratings: 1) milliamp hour, such as 3000 mAh; 2) the “maximum continuous discharge current” (MCDC), such as 10A, 20A or 30A; and 3) voltage such as 3.7V.

As an example, a battery could read “3000 mAH 30A 3.7v.”

– The milliamp hour (mAh) measures the battery’s life (how long the battery lasts after each charge).

– The MCDC indicates the maximum electronic current at which a battery can safely operate. A good analogy would be springs with different load ratings. Clearly, a 20-pound spring should not be used in a device that requires a 30-pound spring. If it were, damage could obviously occur.

– Voltage is the “push” in a battery. For reference, a common flashlight uses about 1.5 volts and a typical car battery uses approximately 12 volts. Voltage is related to charging the e-cigarette battery. And when lithium ion batteries are overcharged or over-discharged (too much or too little voltage), internal damage can occur, leading to explosions.

So how do these power ratings relate to personal injuries?

Well, in a number of ways.

For the time being, the e-cigarette industry is largely unregulated. And with sales growing from $20 million in 2014 to $1 billion in 2016, it’s no wonder companies are flooding the market with e-cigarette devices and necessary lithium ion batteries.

A major concern for and cause of e-cigarette personal injury incidents is related to the re-wrapping of batteries.

Some of the major battery manufacturers, such as Samsung and LG, are selling their batteries that did not meet company standards. These are referred to as “rejected” batteries or “rejects.”

The rejects are then purchased by smaller companies, who place their own company wrap on the battery. A common problem with re-wrapping of rejects is the improper labeling of the battery.

For example, if Company A decides a battery does not meet its standards, it sells the battery to Company B. Company B rewraps the reject and puts its own label on the battery, including the battery power ratings.

Company B doesn’t always label it correctly. It may label the reject battery as 30A when in fact the battery is only 10A. The battery is then distributed and sold to the consumer, who intends to use it in a device that pulls 30 amps.

As with the spring analogy, when this happens, fires and explosions can occur.

Our research in this issue has unveiled that batteries are rewrapped, but at this point, it is unclear whether the initial battery manufacturer (Company A) is selling the batteries and not clearly indicating their amperage or whether the re-wrapper (Company B) simply wraps the battery with whatever amperage it prefers to market.

Further litigation against the manufacturers and re-wrappers should reveal the source of the misrepresentation.

Either way, this is a situation with potentially deadly consequences.

In addition, sometimes the battery chargers that are sold with a certain battery are not proper for that battery. Think of the catastrophe that could occur if you somehow charged a flashlight battery with the same voltage as a car battery and did not know you were doing so.

The heating devices used to activate the batteries (referred to as “mods”) are also unsafe.

Mods typically have three buttons: a fire button, a decrease heat button, and an increase heat button. In many cases, to lock the mod, the user must simultaneously hold the increase and decrease buttons for a few seconds.

With many people carrying the e-cigarette mod in their pockets, it’s not difficult to envision a situation where the mod lock is deactivated and the fire button is then held for an unsafe amount of time, leading to potential over-heating and explosion.

It is without question that our government should promulgate common-sense regulations on the e-cigarette industry that balance the interests of safety, health, and commerce, as we are currently seeing the equivalent of an unregulated oil boom where profits are prioritized over safety.

Chris Stoy is a personal injury lawyer and partner at Hutchison & Stoy, PLLC.

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