New London vape pen explosion raises safety questions

Gary Lane, manager at The Fog Factory in New London, demonstrates wrapping a coil for a vape pen inside the shop Thursday, July 19, 2018. If the coil is wrapped incorrectly and its resistance is too low, the vape pen’s battery can explode. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)
Gary Lane, manager at The Fog Factory in New London, demonstrates wrapping a coil for a vape pen inside the shop Thursday, July 19, 2018. If the coil is wrapped incorrectly and its resistance is too low, the vape pen’s battery can explode. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)

New London — An electronic cigarette explosion left a man with minor facial burns and a laceration last week, the first time such an incident has been reported in the city, firefighters said.

The man was inside 17 Park St., the Mabrey Hotel rooming house, when his vape pen exploded on the afternoon of July 11. Fire officials said they’re looking into whether the pen was customized and if any recalls had been issued for it.

Officials didn’t say what model the pen was but said they reported the incident to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Vaping — the practice of inhaling nicotine vapor, which is often flavored — has become increasingly popular in the United States, especially among youth. Research in the Journal of The American Medical Association found one in seven adults had tried e-cigarettes; the National Institute on Drug Abuse found 16.6 percent of high school seniors had used a vaping device in the past 30 days.

With the increase in usage has come an increase in reports of sometimes fatal vape pen explosions. A Friday Google search for “vape pen explosion” returned 2.5 million results.

“Although they appear rare, these explosions are dangerous,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on its website. “The exact causes of such incidents are not yet clear, but some evidence suggests that battery-related issues may lead to vape explosions.”

Standing inside The Fog Factory on Bank Street on Thursday afternoon, Manager Gary Lane said most explosions happen after a person modifies his or her device to make it more powerful.

When a person uses a vape pen, its battery heats up a coil in the device, which in turn heats up the nicotine liquid, vaporizing it.

Smoke shops like Lane’s sell pre-wrapped coils that have the appropriate resistance. But some people wrap wire around a screwdriver to make their own.

The issue, Lane said, is when the resistance on a handmade coil is too low for the battery in the device.

“The battery tries to output too much power, and that’s how it explodes,” he said. “It’s definitely a user error.”

Customer Aimee Lamountain-Spicer, who’s more commonly known as DJ Gadget, said people sometimes modify their devices to take part in so-called cloud competitions. 

“You draw in, and whoever blows the biggest cloud wins,” she said, shaking her head. “People are trying to get bigger and better, but they’re not supporting it with the right device, they’re just making their own thing.”

Vaping is considered less dangerous than smoking cigarettes but the liquid still contains nicotine and other chemicals whose effect on the body hasn’t been determined.

During a March forum in Old Lyme, Mary Seidner, director of the Lyme-Old Lyme Youth Services Bureau, said children who regularly vape show signs of addiction: they want to vape first thing in the morning and feel jittery if they can’t.

Many students prefer the brand JUUL, whose devices look like USB flash drives and can be charged on a laptop.

Seidner said some teens reported consuming one to one-half JUULpods per day, or the nicotine equivalent of smoking one to one-half packs of cigarettes.

The Lyme-Old Lyme School District is among many that discipline students who are caught with the devices. Officials also require first-time offenders to take a nicotine prevention education course.

The U.S. surgeon general in 2016 said youth e-cigarette use was a major public health concern that could create a new generation of cigarette smokers and be harmful to brain development.

Lamountain-Spicer and Lane, however, don’t believe vaping is as dangerous as local and federal officials make it sound.

Lamountain-Spicer said her life has changed since she first vaped almost two years ago. She hasn’t smoked a cigarette since, she said, and can breathe better, sing better and talk without coughing.

Lane said users should buy authentic batteries and coils that are suited for their devices.

“If you have questions, stop by your local vape store,” he said. “There’s no wrong question. I’d rather someone come in and be safe than blow themselves up.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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