Our E-Cigarettes Are Going to Melt Our Faces and Burn Our Houses Down

Long-term studies on the health effects of vaping haven't been completed, and you know what else hasn't been studied? Whether they've been programmed by al Qaeda to explode all over our old people.

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Apr 16 2014, 4:48pm

Why sugarcoat it? Judging from the heavily trafficked articles on the Daily Mail and Huffington Post, it looks like e-cigarettes aren't going to stop at poisoning children. They're coming after our homes and our faces. Long-term studies on the health effects of vaping haven't been completed, and you know what else hasn't been studied? Whether they've been programmed by al Qaeda to explode all over our old people.

Maybe you already know one of the stories: An old lady in England was severely disfigured on Friday when her face caught on fire in connection with the use of an e-cigarette. That there was a fire and that it was sad aren't matters of dispute. It's just not clear yet how the e-cigarette attacked her or why.

Here are the facts: There was a horrible fire in a Manchester hospital, and a 65-year-old lady named Jean Booth received burns to her face. Booth was there for a routine hip operation. No one was watching when the ignition occurred, but there was some kind of explosion, which led to flames, which led to burns. The Sun, a print tabloid, received testimony from a relative who said, "We're all in total shock. Her face is completely burnt. It's covered up with bandages. She might be blinded. It's absolutely horrendous.” 

The Daily Mail story implies that the woman’s breathing tube, or some part of her breathing apparatus, exploded somehow, and that the ignition occurred when she took a drag from her e-cigarette. Their exact words are “her e-cigarette is thought to have ignited her oxygen.” The Manchester Evening News is even less clear, saying, “An investigation has been launched after an electronic cigarette was discovered near to her hospital bed after the blast.” The Mirror explains, “It is understood that she suffered sudden breathing difficulties and was given oxygen using tubes attached to her nose.”

What's the story? How does an e-cigarette trigger a fire? Was it the dangerous aerosol nicotine molecules and their carcinogenic powers attacking the woman's breathing tube until it exploded?

I put my question to Gerald E. Loeb, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California. He told me that "anything with a battery and a heating coil could ignite in the presence of pure oxygen, which would then feed the flames of everything around. This is why hospitals have strict rules on electrical devices where oxygen is used.​"

Indeed, responsible medical professionals provide literature to patients that would have made this clear. In other words, the patient, and nearby staff, should have known not to get electronics near the oxygen.

This tabloid story rhymes with an incident from last week in which a woman’s e-cigarette charger exploded, which points to the charger or possibly the battery as being hazardous, as opposed to the nicotine or the internal heat coils. Here’s that video:

Then yesterday, a story broke that makes these others look like child's play. Daily Mail news rephraser Amanda Williams gives us the headline "Now e-cigarette explodes and starts flat fire leaving one woman in hospital after the device overheated while it was charging." Firefighters do in fact seem certain that the charger or battery caused the fire.

But as John Hartigan of Vapeology, a vape store in Los Angeles pointed out to me, there are countless types of e-cigarette form factors, models, and hardware combinations. E-cigarettes aren't a monolithic entity, but a bunch of different devices manufactured on different continents. When Sony discovered that some of its batteries were fire hazards last week, the press told us exactly which ones to avoid. But the coverage of this e-cigarette fire doesn't bother to mention exactly which e-cigaratte hardware might be faulty. 

I'd come to Vapeology, a sparse but welcoming e-cigarette hardware and liquid retailer in the Cypress Park area, to find out more about all the recent hysteria and the effect it was having on business. Hartigan told me he talks to the press a lot and attends city council meetings. But overall, he shrugs it off. "There's going to be good news and bad news. That's just how it's going to be," he said. Later he told me, "It's still the Wild West."

As an example of a hazard, Hartigan showed me a style of atomizer he'd opted to stop selling, because it overheated due to a reliance on solder—I think. Things got a little technical. The fact that laypeople like myself don't know what electricity is made of is part of Hartigan's point. "If you're going to hot-rod your equipment and not pay attention to the natural, physical laws, then you're running a danger," he told me.

At the moment, it's up to responsible proprietors to perform this kind of quality control, since there's no governing body and customers certainly don't give much thought to safety.

Worse still, have you met e-cigarette users? I'm sure there are plenty of nice ones, but the ones you notice are the douchebags. 

Hartigan is haunted by his customers' reputation for ruining bar scenes. Bartenders in Orange County, where vaping indoors is still legal, recently gave him a hard time about his job as a vape-store owner. "They say to me, 'So you're one of those assholes?'" he told me. But that ostentatious public vaping, which Hartigan calls "cloud chasing," isn't just irritating; it sometimes borders on hazardous.

He told me there are three basic types of e-cigarette customer: 

  1. Cigarette quitters, who buy sensible equipment and then return to thank him for helping them clean up their acts.
  2. The hookah crowd, who just want a new reason for people to look at them. They just want whatever's most expensive.
  3. Hobbyists, who are smart and creative, but also the kind that are most likely to get themselves into trouble.

The hobbyists, particularly the modders—a.k.a. the type who buy body kits and big subwoofers for their Acuras—are getting into something called sub-ohm vaping, which means cranking down the resistance on the atomizer in an e-cigarette to lower than one ohm.

Apparently once you get your resistance down that low, you're able to vaporize enormous quantities of e-cigarette liquid and produce endless, fog-machine-like billowing clouds from your mouth and nose, which, I hear, really impress the ladies. This is how the aforementioned "cloud chasing" is accomplished. 

I don't claim to know the significance of less than one ohm of resistance, and that means I shouldn't try it. Don't take it from me, though. Just listen to this very reasonable guy talking about sub-ohm vaping:

It's excessive, it gets in everyone's face, and it's dangerous. So in other words, what makes sub-ohm vaping obnoxious to reasonable people is exactly what makes it appealing to tools. It's this kind of dick measuring that's speeding up the backlash against e-cigarettes. When cloud chasers ask Hartigan about his modest equipment, he replies, "I just don't want anybody banning me from doing this."

While vaping culture and vaping coverage in the media are both ramping up, so is the bummer machine known as our government, man. The latest is a California ban on online sales that might become law in a few weeks. Still, there's plenty that the pearl-clutching set have yet to freak out about, like the fact that you can vape hash oil in similar or identical devices. It might be a good idea for e-cigarette users to keep a low profile. But then, a lot of things might be good ideas.

So here's a big doff of my fedora to the modders out there striving to be the Wright Brothers of getting killed by an e-cigarette. The government really has no reason to ban these fairly harmless gadgets that can actually improve people's health. But you're out there making sure they find a reason! Nice going!

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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