Electronic cigarettes are popular among those attempting to cut back on smoking or kick the habit entirely. While some view "vaping" as a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes, these electronic nicotine delivery systems pose significant dangers of their own.
First introduced in the United States a decade ago, e-cigarettes typically consist of a liquid nicotine cartridge, atomization chamber and rechargeable lithium battery. The battery activates a heating element inside the chamber, vaporizing the nicotine, which the user then inhales.
Some manufacturers portray e-cigarettes as being less harmful because they do not contain as many toxic chemicals, such as tar and carbon monoxide, found in tobacco smoke. What users don't expect, however, is their device to explode in their pocket or face.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there were 195 reported e-cigarette fire and explosion incidents in the United States between January 2009 and December 2016. The majority of these incidents resulted in severe or moderate injuries to the individual, and most occurred while the device or its battery was either in a pocket or in use. Dozens of other instances involved charging or stored devices, and one incident occurred on a cargo aircraft. The USFA notes that many e-cigarette mishap victims might not report their incidents, such as those involving self-extinguished fires.
Soldiers aren't immune to these mishaps. Between fiscals 2015-2017, the Army experienced six Class C e-cigarette incidents, including a Soldier who lost 11 teeth and suffered cuts and burns when his vaping device blew up in his face. In addition, a Soldier was involved in a Class D burn mishap likely due to an e-cigarette battery exploding in his pocket.
"While these mishaps are rare, all Soldiers must be aware of the hazards vaping devices pose," said Brig. Gen. David J. Francis, commanding general, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center and director of Army Safety. "It's hard when they're trying to do the right thing to be healthier, but the potential is there for lifelong injury. We don't want to see any Soldier hurt or our readiness negatively affected."
Recently, the Army issued an All Army Activities, or ALARACT, message to inform leaders of the hazards related to the lithium batteries used in e-cigarettes.
"Lithium cells possess unique characteristics," the ALARACT stated. "If misused or abused (dented, dropped, overcharged or exposed to external heat), catastrophic results are possible and may include first-, second- or third-degree burns, respiratory problems, fire or explosion, resulting in serious injury or death. Consider the introduced risk and mitigate when in, on and around Army vessels, vehicles and aircraft; or in vicinity of ammunition, explosives and flammable or combustible material."
While the Department of Defense has no guidelines regarding e-cigarettes, Soldiers and civilians are required to follow current General Services Administration tobacco policy, which prohibits its use in federal facilities, except military housing. E-cigarette users may vape in designated smoking areas.
"We simply want Soldiers who choose to vape to do so safely," Francis said. "As with any other electronic product, follow the manufacturer's instructions on charging and storage, and if your device is damaged, replace it promptly. But the safest course of action remains quitting smoking altogether, especially when we're still unsure of vaping's long-term effects."
The American Cancer Society's annual Great American Smokeout will be observed Nov. 16. Soldiers interested in the event, which offers support for individuals looking to give up tobacco, can find more information at https://www.cancer.org/healthy/stay-away-from-tobacco.html.