Burned Toddler Shows Need for E-Cigarette Regulation

An accident in Utah illustrates why the FDA is under increased pressure to monitor electronic cigarettes

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On Tuesday, CNN reported that a three-year-old boy in Provo, Utah had been severely burned by a faulty car battery used to charge his mother’s electronic cigarette. A copper coil inside the battery shot into her son’s car seat and set it on fire, burning the child’s butt, lower back, and elbow.

The boy, who suffered first and second degree burns, will recover. But his mother may think twice before using an electronic cigarette again. “Seeing your child on fire and them screaming ‘help me!’ is definitely pretty terrifying,” she told CNN.

The accident in Utah illustrates why the Food and Drug Administration is under increased pressure to regulate electronic cigarettes. As Time explained this week in a feature on e-cigarettes, the FDA has said it intends to announce its authority over electronic cigarettes as a tobacco product in October, a step that would kick off a rules writing and comment process. But the FDA had already delayed its announcement from an original target date of April, creating frustration among doctors, scientists, and industry leaders, who are eager for regulation. “The FDA needs to act as quickly as possible,” Dr. Jack Henningfield,  an expert on nicotine addiction at Johns Hopkins, told Time, “You know what you are getting in cereal and in dog food. You don’t know that for these products.”

The electronic cigarette retail sales market in the U.S. will have grown six times from $300 million in 2012 to an estimated $1.8 billion by the end of the year, according to Wells Fargo securities analyst Bonnie Herzog. While some state and local governments have restricted electronic cigarettes by levying taxes, denying sales to kids, and banning them in public places, the FDA has not set any standards for the safety of their contents or their manufacturing. Without regulation, electronic cigarettes can be made anywhere by anyone.

In addition to device malfunctions like the battery explosion in Utah, the nicotine liquid inside electronic cigarettes can also be dangerous. A drop of undiluted nicotine on the skin can be deadly and the other chemicals in the liquid, like propylene glycol and chemical flavorings, have not been deemed safe by the FDA for inhalation into the lungs. In May, a two-year-old girl died in Israel after ingesting e-cigarette liquid.

When the FDA begins the regulatory process, it will be able to require safe manufacturing standards, testing  of the liquid’s safety, and require child safety measures like child proof caps, among other things. For the little boy in Utah, regulation didn’t come soon enough.