Florida officials probe cause of fatal vape device explosion

By Peter Szekely

(Reuters) - Fire investigators are examining whether the battery in an electronic cigarette triggered a small explosion that killed a man in Florida this month, sending fragments of the vape device into his skull, in what may be the first such fatality in the country.

Tallmadge D'Elia, 38, was found dead on May 5 when police and firefighters responded to a blaze at his home in St. Petersburg.

D'Elia was killed by fragments of a vape device that shot through his skull. He also suffered burns on more than 80 percent of his body, the local medical examiner said in an autopsy report issued on Tuesday.

Police have ruled the death accidental. Fire investigators are trying to pinpoint the cause of the explosion, mostly by systematically ruling out any possible causes besides the device's battery.

"The likelihood of the battery being the actual cause of the fire is more probable than not," St. Petersburg Fire Rescue spokesman Lieutenant Steve Lawrence said by telephone on Thursday.

"We feel that the battery had the potential energy to basically turn the vape mod into a missile, and it penetrated the victim’s cranial cavity," he said. Vape mods are bulkier, more complicate versions of pen-sized e-cigarettes that heat liquid nicotine or other substances into vapor.

Lawrence said the investigation should be finished by next week, adding that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken an interest in the case.

While lithium-ion batteries used in e-cigarettes have been known to cause fires and explosions in rare cases, they had previously caused no deaths, the U.S. Fire Administration said in a report issued last July.

The agency, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tallied 195 incidents of burning or exploding e-cigarettes between January 2009 and the end of 2016 that resulted in 133 acute injuries, of which 38 were severe.

"Since the current generation of lithium-ion batteries is the root cause of these incidents, it is clear that these batteries are not a safe source of energy for these devices," the agency said.

To help avoid vape device explosions, the FDA warns users against overcharging batteries or using a charger other than the one that came with the device. It also recommends that batteries not come in contact with metal, and that they be replaced if they become damaged or wet.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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