Litium-Ion batteries are one of the most common forms of energy storage today. They power everything from cell phones to laptops, and more recently vape devices. Without proper storage and handling, these little powerhouses can have serious consequences. In one case, lethal, as one Florida man found out earlier this month.
Tallmadge D'Elia, a resident of St. Petersburg Florida was found dead in his home on May 5th. Medical examiner reports confirmed that the cause of the accidental death was a “projectile wound to the head,” and that Mr. D’Elia, 35, had suffered burns on about 80 percent of his body. It appeared that the explosion had started a fire in the bedroom where he was found.
The device D'Elia was using was a mechanical mod from Filipino manufacturer Smok-E-Mountain Mech Works. It was a Mechanical mod, a type of vape device that gives the user direct access to the power stored in whichever battery is used. These kind of devices also carry no internal wiring or electronic safety measures to prevent batteries from failing catastrophically, or "venting." The devices became very popular around 2013 but have since been eclipsed in sales and use by regulated mods. Nowadays they are most commonly used by hobbyist vapers and veteran vape enthusiasts.
Mechanical mods have played a role in a few instances of battery venting, but this is the first and only documented case where the results were actually lethal. Previous malfunctions have started fires and even caused bodily harm. But the chances of getting killed or even seriously injured by venting batteries is incredibly rare.
Looking at FEMA fire data from 2015, there were 1,800 fires that resulted in the death of at least one person. 13.8% of which were attributed to cigarettes. That's approximately 250 fires caused by smoking. Couple that with data from the CDC about smoking rates in the US and you find that about 3.7% of the country are frequent vape users, while the US still has a smoking rate of about 10%. This means there are about 3 times as many smokers as vapers. Given this recent death, the data shows someone is over 300 times more likely to die in a cigarette fire than from a malfunctioning vape device.
But what causes these malfunctions? The largest factor in mechanical mod failures is battery venting. This can come from damaged or broken battery wraps/casings as well as misuse and over-use of the battery itself.
Lithium-Ion batteries used in vape devices are typically referred to by the dimensions of the battery itself. The most common is known as an 18650. 18650s are also very commonly used as lantern and flashlight batteries. All batteries come with plastic wraps that, if damaged or torn, leave the battery exposed in dangerous places. Additionally, batteries have a maximum amount of energy they can safely expel before venting. This refers to both the total energy they store and how fast that energy can be released.
The best way to defend yourself from injuries and worse is to make sure you have proper knowledge and safety practices. Batteries should always have good, complete wraps to prevent exposure. Batteries should always be kept either in a device or in a battery case. Never carry batteries loose in pockets or bags. Always make sure you understand the device you use or carry so you know the risks and how best to avoid trouble.
Lastly, consult your local vape shop before using or purchasing devices, especially mechanical mods and rebuildable heating elements. It is imperative that we understand the technology we use. Battery safety is of the utmost importance; be it for cell phones, laptops, or vape devices.