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Health Team

Wilmington man's eye loss highlights risk of e-cigarette explosions

Posted December 14, 2016

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, more than 2.5 million Americans are using electronic cigarettes.

Many use them in order to help them avoid the health risks of cigarettes, but there is a serious risk with some vaping devices themselves.

Three years ago, Christopher Richards of Wilmington had kicked a longtime cigarette habit with the help of electronic cigarettes.

"As I put it up to my face, I hit the plunger, and as soon as I hit the plunger, it exploded," Richards said.

Richards immediately lost vision in his left eye, and the burning battery fell on his chest.

"I had three layers of clothes that (the battery burned) through," Richards said.

Jordan Richards, who is married to Christopher, was also in the room when the explosion happened.

"I kind of out of the corner of my eye saw a bright flash and heard the loud bang, and he just started saying, 'Oh my God, oh my God,'" Jordan Richards said.

Christopher Richards was airlifted to the Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals.

His left eye was replaced by a prosthetic eye, and he required skin grafts for burns to his chest.

The explosion occurred without warning.

"Just all of the sudden, and that's the same story we get from all of our patients that we've had," said Dr. Felicia Williams.

Williams is a general surgeon with the Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals. She says as of last August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has regulatory authority over electronic cigarette delivery systems, which contain nicotine fluids that are heated, vaporized and inhaled.

The FDA now requires the products meet public health standards: They can't be sold to people younger than age 18 and cannot be sold in vending machines.

"But they are not going to be regulating how they are produced and how the battery packs are installed or what companies are producing them and how they are producing them," Williams said.

Almost a year past the experience, Christopher Richards is just thankful to have recovered—and with one good eye

"Still getting used to it," Christopher Richards said. "There are some things still getting used to."

Explosions aren't unique to electronic cigarettes, though. It's also something that's happened recently wit smartphone batteries and rechargeable hoverboards that were popular last Christmas.

The U.S. Fire Administration says these explosions or fires are rare, and most incidents occur while the device batteries are plugged in for charging. However, Williams says they are seeing more of these incidents involving burns both from the chemicals involved and the flame that results from the explosion.

If the battery fails, the devices themselves can become like flaming rockets and pierce the skin. Users should make up their own mind about the risk they face from the device itself, both the burn risk involved while vaping and the fire risk to your home when it is plugged in for recharging.

These are lithium-ion batteries that must be charged in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions, so read those carefully when you buy it.

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