The popularity of vaping has been growing rapidly as the number and selection of products expands at a rate of knots. But this has led to a number of incidents where the lithium-ion batteries used to power the devices have failed. These battery failures have manifested as small ignitions and fires. While the numbers haven’t been huge, social media and news channels have not been shy at showing battery failures. A casual review of YouTube reveals multiple videos of very dramatic scenes.
Most of the failures in the past occurred with cigalike batteries and the mixing of USB power supplies from different manufacturers. Some units had the charger built into the battery and some in the charging unit. A bad mix had the potential to have a battery and power supply with no charging circuit in the loop to cut the power when the charge was complete. With the current range of equipment this is no longer the case. More recently, the main reason for a battery venting or going into thermal runaway has been because of unsafe transportation of battery cells and very low Ohm builds. There have also been incidents of poor battery choice for the build pushing batteries past their capability and a small number of cases of an inbuilt charging circuit failing.
As you would expect, personal injuries attract far more attention than damage to property, they also appear to happen more frequently.
Media reports suggest that the single biggest reason for a battery igniting is user error but this can raise conflicting issues from a legal liability point of view.
There is definitely a need for user education. Most e-cigarette and vaping product manufacturers already mention the importance of proper charging practices in their literature. Stronger warnings in the literature and user manuals that are mandatory ought to be the way forward.
Fires do happen
When an e-cigarette or vaping product ignites whilst being used, the user can sustain dental damage and severe burns to the mouth, hands and tongue. Idle batteries, often held in a user’s pocket can cause severe burns to the legs and then, as the user struggles to remove the flaming device from their pocket, burns to the hands.
Media reports generally characterise incidents as explosions. Most often this is caused by a battery shorting to create a thermal runaway. A number of incidents are blamed on loose change in a pocket causing the positive and negative connections to hit at the same time.
Some e-cigarettes and vaping products activate the heating coil when a user takes a drag from the device. Manual e-cigarettes have a switch that the user depresses to energise the heating element to make the heated vapour. Most manufactured devices have built-in timeout features that prevent overheating, and many have locking features to prevent the switch from being activated in a pocket or purse.
Most incidents result in damage to the person who owns the device. Damage to property if it occurs is mostly contained, given the proximity often of the user or other members of the public, who are able to respond quickly.
There is no product specific regulation, code or law which applies to the safety of the vaping unit as a whole. However, there is regulation on each component part, including the batteries. As consumer products, vaping devices must be safe and manufacturers can be strictly liable for injuries to consumers or for property damage.
How serious a problem are overheating batteries?
Batteries have been implicated in the majority of fires. Safety experts have articulated for years that lithium-ion batteries present a significant risk, dangers that can be mitigated by replacing batteries once their casing has been chipped, keeping units away from water and other metal objects and, of course, following a manufacturer’s usage specifications.
What then of batteries that have manufacturing defects? For that matter, many batteries marketed specifically to vapers are sold individually, without any warnings or instructions.
Why do fires occur?
Historically there was concern about whether devices were being charged correctly. But in modern devices the charging circuit should only pull through the amps required and no more. Most vendors will supply a 5v 1 amp plug adaptor as an added safety step if they are asked to supply a power supply at the point of sale.
Products using larger batteries that are removed from the device and placed in an external charging unit appear to ensure that a proper power supply is used to charge the batteries.
The use of poor quality, cheaply imported 5 volt power adapters could lead to incidents involving vaping products. As a result, plugging a vaping product into a USB port or power adapter not supplied by the manufacturer may subject the battery to higher amps than is safe, leading to thermal runaway that results in overheating and/or fire. It is recommended that only good quality power adapters that comply with UK specifications are used.
Lithium-ion Battery Failure
Lithium-ion polymer batteries are excellent power supplies for portable devices and are widely used. E-cigarettes and vaping products are different from other electronic consumer devices because the battery is installed in a cylindrical device that has its weakest (structural) point at the ends. When the battery seal (at the end of the battery) ruptures, the pressure within the vaping product cylinder builds quickly and instantly ruptures, usually at the end. The advice is that most devices should now have built in venting holes to ensure pressure doesn’t build up.
What should battery safety look like?
- Only use the charger supplied and detailed with the device.
- Never leave a charging battery unattended – especially overnight.
- Always remove a charged battery from a charger.
- Do not keep batteries together and protect from metal/coins.
- Ensure batteries are the correct specification for your device.
- Keep batteries out of extreme heat.m are unanimous: lithium-ion batteries cause e-cig on manufacturers are rare
As e-cigarettes and other vaping products will be classed as consumer products, the primary source of liability in English law will be under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 (“CPA“). Manufacturers of vaping products will be strictly liable to injured consumers or in respect of property damage.
The position is less clear from the perspective of others in the supply chain, such as battery manufacturers. In general, under the CPA, componentproducers are not liable where a defect is due to issues with the finished product, i.e. “…wholly attributable to the design of the subsequent product or to compliance by the producer of the product in question with instructions given by the producer of the subsequent product” (CPA section 4(1)(f)). The focus comes back to the warnings and instructions given to the consumer by the vaping product manufacturer. The battery manufacturer can still be liable to the vaping product manufacturer in contract. Such recoveries between members of the supply chain will require detailed analysis, supported by technical expert evidence, about the precise cause of defect. For example, was the battery defective for all purposes or just when used with a specific design of e-cigarette? Who was responsible for specifying which battery should be used with which end product?
Can user error amount to contributory negligence and how does this affect liability?
The starting point is that, under the CPA, liability cannot be excluded or limited. However, a consumer’s damages may be reduced or extinguished where the injury or damage was caused by their fault rather than a defect in the product. For example, if a user acts contrary to a clear warning, a finding of contributory negligence is possible. However, in the absence of clear warnings, simply using a non-suppled charger is unlikely to amount to contributory negligence: from a product safety and design perspective, this a risk to be designed and warned against, rather than putting all of the onus on the consumer.
Retailers may also face liability to consumers in contract under the Consumer Rights Act 2015. However, under the CPA, retailers simply have to identify their supplier and liability then devolves up the supply chain – unless the retailer is also the importer into the EU, or has branded the product.
On the horizon
Manufacturers and importers of vaping products already have to provide detailed information (under the Commission implementing decision (EU) 2015/2183 of 24 November 2015 establishing a common format for the notification of electronic cigarettes and refill containers) about their product and its ingredients.
Under proposed EU reforms, the draft Product Safety and Market Surveillance Package, supply chain traceability is key. Manufacturers and importers will have to keep detailed records about component supplies, including safety risk assessments. However, this reform has been delayed in Brussels for some time. It also remains to be seen whether, post Brexit, these reforms will be incorporated into UK law.