Blumenthal Calls for Recall of Exploding E-Cigarettes, Ban From U.S. Skies

E-cigarettes use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, like the recently recalled fire-catching Galaxy Note 7 phones. Blumenthal asks major U.S. airlines to take immediate voluntary action to protect travelers by banning devices in aircraft cabins.

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Following numerous incidents of exploding and smoldering e-cigarettes dangerously injuring users – including the hospitalization of a Stratford, Connecticut man whose e-cigarette exploded in his mouth, knocking out several of his teeth – U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) today calling on the federal agencies to recall the exploding devices and establish clear safety standards for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in the devices.

“These dangerous devices are exploding mid-use—maiming users and endangering the lives of anyone nearby. I am calling on the FDA and CPSC to immediately recall these defective e-cigarettes, and to establish clear safety standards for e-cigarette batteries,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal also wrote to major U.S. airlines today urging the industry to take immediate voluntary action to ban e-cigarettes from aircraft cabins. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation banned e-cigarettes from checked luggage, but stopped short of banning the devices from cabins, where they continue to pose serious safety risks. There is precedent for airline action—last year Delta, United Airlines and American Airlines all banned hoverboards from carry-on and checked baggage due to fire concerns.

“Particularly on airplanes, e-cigarette explosions pose an immediate and alarming threat to public safety,” Blumenthal said. “I am calling on the airlines to take immediate voluntary steps to protect travelers from this hazard, including banning e-cigarettes from all aircraft cabins.”

The full text of Blumenthal’s letter to the FDA and CPSC is available here. The full text of Blumenthal’s letter to major U.S. airlines – Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, Island Air, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country, United, and Virgin – is available here. Both letters are copied below.

Dear Commissioner Califf and Chairman Kaye:      

            I write to urge the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to address the serious safety risks associated with defective, exploding electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). Last week, a local ABC affiliate reported that a man from Connecticut was hospitalized after an e-cigarette exploded in his mouth, while in use.[1] Witnesses saw the blast blow his two front teeth twenty feet in the air and knock him unconscious. Such incidents involving faulty e-cigarettes are happening with alarming regularity. As federal agencies charged with protecting consumer safety, the FDA and CPSC have an obligation to take prompt and meaningful action to protect individuals—a soaring number of which are young people, according to a recent U.S. Surgeon General report—from this danger.

E-cigarettes with faulty batteries pose not only a threat to individual safety, but to public safety—endangering all that work, live, commute, or even study in the vicinity of their users. Earlier this year, a high school sophomore in Alabama was severely burned after a classmate’s e-cigarette exploded and he was struck in the face by the hot battery.[2] According to research from the FDA, there have been 134 reports of overheating, fires and explosions of the devices in the U.S. between 2009 and January 2016.[3] These incidents have resulted in house and car fires, in addition to severe personal injury.

As Ranking Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, I have noted that there have been a number of past recalls involving lithium-ion batteries and in a wide range of consumer products—ranging from flashlights and hoverboards, to laptops. Despite frequent accounts in the media of exploding e-cigarettes, there has yet to be a single recall by any e-cigarette manufacturer. I am troubled by this lack of action to date, and also concerned that the e-cigarette industry is cutting corners and not taking appropriate steps to ensure the electrical safety of the products they are manufacturing and marketing.

            Unlike other electronic devices, there is no consensus standard—national or otherwise—for testing and ensuring the safety of the lithium-ion batteries in e-cigarettes. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a standards-setting body, has developed product-specific design standards for the rechargeable batteries in cellular phones and laptops. Both of these standards were developed through a consensus process and required the commitment and dedication of diverse parts of the respective industries to prioritizing customer safety.[4] In contrast, the e-cigarette industry has failed to even initiate a process to create a standard for rechargeable batteries in e-cigarettes, suggesting they are much more interested in profits than prioritizing consumer safety. Even worse, it is unclear if e-cigarette manufacturers are even in compliance with any general lithium-ion battery standards, such as the ones created by UL.[5]

Furthermore, as noted by the U.S. Fire Administration in a 2014 report, e-cigarettes “are different from other electronic consumer devices” as they have a unique cylindrical nature and are “more likely than other products with lithium-ion batters to behave like ‘flaming rockets’ when a battery fails.”[6] These realities about e-cigarette product design make it ever more pertinent that the industry ensure compliance with any safety standards and create standards to guarantee consumer safety. Cell phones and laptops have product-specific safety standards for their batteries, and given the high rate of incidents involving e-cigarette batteries, so too should e-cigarettes.

            Accordingly, I urge the FDA and CPSC to take action to protect consumers from the significant safety hazards posed by e-cigarettes. First, all e-cigarette models that have exploded should be immediately recalled. Such dangerous products must also be removed from store shelves, online marketplaces, and out of the mouths and pockets of consumers. Second, I urge you to work with the e-cigarette industry to create a consumer safety focused standard for the rechargeable batteries in e-cigarettes and ensure the industry’s compliance with any applicable existing battery standards. Third, I respectfully request FDA and CPSC to transmit to my office all incident reports (filed either through FDA’s Safety Reporting Portal or CPSC’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System) involving explosions of e-cigarettes, from January 2009 to December 2016. This information is critical to understanding the magnitude and scope of this issue, and will help guide our follow-up efforts. Finally, I urge your two agencies to work together, leveraging your respective expertise, to effectively address the peril of exploding e-cigarettes.

Thank you for attention to this important matter. I respectfully request a response no later than January 20, 2016.

Dear [Airline]:

Last week, an American Airlines flight traveling from Dallas to Indianapolis was forced to make an emergency landing when an electronic cigarette in a passenger’s carry-on luggage caught on fire mid-flight.  Had it not been quickly contained, the fire could have caused catastrophe for all 137 passengers aboard.  This troubling incident is not uncommon, and the increase in e-cigarette use means the likelihood of in-flight fires is only going to grow, creating a terrifying risk for all who rely on safe air travel – as well as disrupting the lives of everyone inconvenienced.  In recognition of this severe and totally unnecessary risk, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has banned e-cigarettes from checked luggage.  As Americans take to the skies this week to visit friends and family for the holidays, I write to demand that you follow DOT’s lead and ban e-cigarettes being taken into your aircrafts’ cabins, whether in carry-on luggage or otherwise. 

The use of e-cigarettes is reportedly rising, particularly among young people, creating a growing and unique safety threat to those in proximity to the devices.  While other electronic products have lithium-ion batteries – like laptops and cell phones – e-cigarettes are manufactured differently and function differently.  The U.S. Fire Administration noted in a 2014 report that e-cigarettes are “are different from other electronic consumer devices” as they have a unique cylindrical nature and are “more likely than other products with lithium-ion batteries to behave like ‘flaming rockets’ when a battery fails.”  Moreover, there are no safety standards governing these devices.  

The American Airlines episode is just one of several recent alarming incidents documented by the FAA involving e-cigarettes causing fires in or near aircraft cabins:

    • In June 2016, an e-cigarette in a Spirit passenger’s carry-on bag began smoking at the gate.  The fire department was called to put out the fire

    • In June 2016, an e-cigarette in a Spirit passenger’s carry-on bag began smoking mid-flight, requiring the fire to be put out by a flight crew member using a fire extinguisher 

    • In March 2016, an e-cigarette in a Delta passenger’s carry-on bag caught on fire during the boarding process before being extinguished by a flight attendant 

    • In December 2015, an e-cigarette battery in a JetBlue passenger’s carry-on bag experienced a “thermal runaway,” catching on fire at the gate before being extinguished 

    • In September 2015, an e-cigarette battery in a Mesa Airlines passenger’s carry-on bag ignited at the gate, causing smoke to travel through the cabin, requiring the fire department to come aboard and extinguish the burning bag. 

    • In June 2015, an e-cigarette in a Southwest passenger’s pocket ignited in-flight, burning the passenger and causing the battery to “shoot out of the device.”

Incidents like these should not be the new normal in air travel.  Thankfully, the federal government has already taken some important steps to protect air passengers.  In May 2016, DOT issued a rule banning these devices from checked luggage, deeming it necessary to address “the safety risks posed by battery-powered portable electronic smoking devices.”  That rule, however, does not go far enough.  While it is prohibited to use or charge an e-cigarette in flight, DOT continues to allow their presence in the cabin, where they can spontaneously explode.  DOT justifies this because “flight crew can quickly intervene in the case of overheating, short circuit, or fire.”  But an e-cigarette is just as dangerous in an overhead bin two feet above a passenger as it is in the luggage compartment two feet below.  A fire may not be quickly identified and contained by passengers or flight crew members.  The fire could happen on a red-eye flight, when passengers are asleep or when flight attendants are busy addressing other in-cabin needs.  Moreover, an e-cigarette could ignite in a carry-on bag next to other permissible but still combustible materials, like paper, creating a conflagration that moves too quickly to contain.

I sought to ban e-cigarettes from aircraft cabins in the aviation bill Congress considered earlier this year.  Unfortunately, that bill instead merely extended aviation programs for the short term instead of advancing new aviation safety measures.  I will push again for a ban next year when Congress reconsiders the bill with an eye toward longer-term reforms.  I will also continue to call on DOT to use its authority to effect this ban across the industry.  In the meantime, you can assert your proactive commitment to safety – and potentially save lives – today. 

There is precedent for such action.  Last year, the country’s three largest carriers – Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines – decided on their own to ban hoverboards from both carry-on and checked baggage.  Delta noted, “While occurrences are uncommon, these batteries can spontaneously overheat and pose a fire hazard risk.”  The same rationale applies to e-cigarettes, as we saw just last week and saw repeatedly in earlier incidents.     

I appreciate your attention to this vital safety matter.  After so many warnings and red flags, it is imperative for your industry to act to ensure these dangerous devices remain permanently grounded. 



[1] WABC-TV, “Man Speaks Out After E-Cigarette Explodes in Mouth,” December 14, 2016, accessed December 21, 2016, http://abc7ny.com/news/exclusive-man-speaks-out-after-e-cig-explodes-in-mouth/1656673/.

[2] CNN, “E-cigarette explodes, burns high school student.” May 10, 2016, accessed December 21, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2016/05/10/e-cigarette-explodes-in-classmates-face-pkg.waff/video/playlists/e-cigarettes/.

[3] Sara Randazzo, “E-Cigarette Users Sue Over Exploding Devices,” Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2016, accessed December 21, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/e-cigarette-users-sue-over-exploding-devices-1467538202

[4] IEEE Standards Association, “IEEE-SA Mobile Battery Standards,” accessed December 21, 2016, https://standards.ieee.org/develop/corpchan/mobilebat.pdf.

[5] Tom O’Hara, “Navigating the Regulatory Maze of Lithium Battery Safety,” Battery Power, November 2013, accessed December 21, 2016, http://www.batterypoweronline.com/main/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Intertek_Regulatory-Maze-WP.pdf.

[6] U.S. Fire Administration, “Electronic Cigarette Fires and Explosions,” October 2014, 5, accessed December 21, 2016, https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/electronic_cigarettes.pdf.

###