Denver7's investigation of e-cigarette explosions has DeGette calling for congressional hearings

Denver7 documented more than 300 e-cig explosions
Posted at 9:18 PM, Apr 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-08 00:55:36-04

DENVER -- Denver7 Investigates has amassed data on more than 300 e-cigarette explosions and fires, which often severely burned and maimed people in Colorado and around the world.

The growing evidence grabbed the attention of Rep. Diana DeGette, D-CO, prompting the Denver Democrat to push for congressional hearings.    

"For some time I've been concerned about the health risks, the chemical risks," DeGette said, referring to researchers finding a chemical linked to cases of severe respiratory disease and high levels of toxic metals in e-cigarette liquids.

"But now there's an added risk that we're seeing through your reporting, which is the dangerous batteries. This is something Congress really needs to step up and investigate," she told Denver7 chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski after watching our investigative stories on the dangerous trend.

"Are you going to call for Congressional hearings based on what you have seen?" Kovaleski asked.

"Yes," DeGette replied. "I think that the case for regulation is mounting."

The congresswoman said she will take evidence Denver7 uncovered to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. She is the top Democrat on the subcommittee, which oversees the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, two agencies tasked with developing regulations for the relatively new e-cigarette devices.

The popularity of e-cigarettes -- battery-powered devices that heat liquid nicotine into a vapor that's inhaled -- has soared among consumers who consider them a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.

There were 10.8 million regular e-cigarette users in the United States in 2015, generating $3.5 billion in sales, according to Euromonitor International, a market research company. And it's not just adults using them. The U.S. Surgeon General warned last year that an estimated 2.4 million high school students and 620,000 middle school students had used an e-cigarette at least one time during the past 30 days in 2015. 

Database reveals vast extent of e-cig explosions, burns

The Denver7 Investigates team has compiled what we believe to be the most extensive database of e-cigarette explosions and fires in Colorado and around the world.

The data -- information gathered from lawsuits, fire reports, internet sources, media reports and the federal agencies -- documents more than 300 e-cigarette fires and explosions worldwide, a trend that began in 2011.

The evidence shows a growing number of e-cigarette explosions during the past two years -- Denver7 found that 64 percent ended in injury -- with many serious leg and facial burns and other wounds that occurred when e-cigarette batteries explode in people's pants pockets or while they're taking a puff.  

DeGette sat down with Kovaleski to watch two Denver7 stories in our ongoing investigation of e-cigarette hazards.

We discovered at least 35 e-cigarette-related fires or explosions in Colorado -- a majority happening last year -- and at least 27 of those ended in injury. Seven people were treated at Swedish Medical Center and 16 in the burn center at University of Colorado Hospital.

Surgeons at UCHealth Burn Center said they've seen a spike in e-cigarette explosions lately and they’re concerned.

"We didn’t see this two years ago," said Dr. Arek Wiktor. "We’ve seen a significant increase in these in the past year."

"We've taken care of two patients that were in the process of smoking it when it blew up," added Medical Director Anne Wagner. "So they ended up with injuries to their face and eyes. It’s a significant problem."

We also talked with several e-cigarette users -- people trying to stop smoking cigarettes who never expected to become victims.

Craig Renz said he was walking into a Home Depot store when the e-cigarette in his pocket suddenly exploded.

"I thought I was going to die," Renz said. "I didn’t know what happened. I thought I'd been shot."

Greg Ingram and Mike Hapakowski described similar ordeals.

"My pants caught fire and the flames shot out and got my thumb, and then I went to pat it out and my whole pocket just erupted," Ingram said.

Said Hapakowski, "It was literally about a second or two and then powwww and a full explosion."

E-cigarette users say their products didn't come with any kind of warning that the battery could potentially explode.

"I was never told about the dangers," Renz said. "Had I been told that this had any remote chance of exploding in my pocket the way it did, I never would have bought it. I never would have put it in my pocket."

FAA, airlines out in front of e-cig regulations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken action on the devices in the past two years after nearly two dozen incidents of them catching fire aboard airplanes and at airports.

FAA data obtained by Denver7 Investigates show there were 22 documented e-cigarette explosions and incidents aboard airplanes or at airports since 2009 -- but 18 of those happened in the past two years.

In January 2015, the FAA issued a safety alert warning airlines to have their passengers carry e-cigarettes only in planes’ cabins, and a rule was instituted later that year mandating that e-cigs not be put in checked baggage or be charged aboard planes.

Their use aboard planes was banned outright in March 2016, though they are still allowed in carry-on luggage. But that hasn’t necessarily stopped the incidents from happening.

Denver7 Investigates’ investigation found two e-cig-related incidents at Denver International Airport last year: In June, a Spirit Airlines flight was evacuated after an e-cigarette caught on fire in a person’s carry-on backpack. And in September, a checked backpack caught on fire on another Spirit Airlines flight and was caught by a baggage handler.

But three incidents have happened across the country since October. A backpack lit aflame during the boarding of an Alaska Airlines flight on Oct. 30 and was put out with fire extinguishers; a charging e-cigarette started smoking and caught fire at Seattle International Airport in November; and on Dec. 15, an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Indianapolis had to be diverted to Arkansas after a passenger’s e-cigarette caught fire.

"There was a lot of panic in the plane," a passenger on that flight, Cindy Nelson, told WRTV. "We made the fastest descent I have ever experienced."

DeGette's reaction

"You saw our two reports, what did you hear there?" Kovaleski asked the congresswoman.

"I had heard anecdotally that the exploding e-cigarettes was a problem but, really, until you pulled all that data together, I didn't know the extent of it or the fact that it's worldwide," DeGette said

"It's obvious we need to regulate e-cigarettes," she said. "You can't have an item like this that's hazardous to peoples' health in many ways -- everything from putting chemicals in their lungs to exploding in their pockets...This is why we have consumer protection laws."


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