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Does an e-cigarette pose a threat to an on-board fire?

Aug. 18, 2014, Boston, Ma. - Federal authorities should consider further restrictions for electronic cigarettes on planes, airport officials said after one of the devices apparently started a small fire that forced passengers to briefly evacuate a plane last weekend.


August 18, 2014
By Philip Marcelo The Associated Press

Ed Freni, director of aviation at the Massachusetts Port Authority,
which operates Boston's Logan International Airport, said the device was
packed in a passenger's checked luggage and burned a small hole in the
bag. He said it could have been far more serious had a baggage handler
not smelled smoke, located the smouldering bag and extinguished it
before the plane took off.

 

"If that airplane had taxied out and got airborne it might have been a very different story," Freni said Friday.

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E-cigarettes, which turn a liquid nicotine
solution into a vapour, are typically powered by lithium-ion batteries.
They are considered personal devices under U.S. aviation rules and are
treated like other battery-powered devices, such as laptop computers,
cellphones and cameras. Like cigarettes, however, passengers can't use
e-cigs in-flight.

 

Under current federal
regulations, airline passengers are allowed to bring personal devices
onto planes, but all lithium-ion batteries must be protected from damage
or accidental activation. Spare lithium-ion batteries are prohibited
from checked baggage.

 

A U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman
said the agency, which regulates which items are deemed hazardous on
planes, is not currently considering further restrictions on personal
devices.

Freni, of the Massachusetts Port Authority, says
not enough attention has been paid to potential fire safety issues
around e-cigarettes.

 

While the authority and the airline say all
signs point to the e-cigarette as the source of the fire, the
Massachusetts Department of Fire Services said the cause had not yet
been determined.

 

Department spokeswoman Jennifer
Mieth cautioned people not to jump to conclusions about e-cigarette
safety, but she said the agency does recommend users disconnect the
device's batteries before putting them away as a precaution.

 

"Obviously it's a great concern to us if there is a new product that might be a potential source of fire," she said.

 

There has been concern about lithium-ion battery
fires for years, and they have been implicated in at least two cargo
plane crashes.

 

Bob Duval, of the National Fire Protection
Association in Quincy could recall few instances where e-cigarettes were
involved, though he did point to a 2009 fire on a plane at the
Minneapolis-St. Paul airport that apparently was sparked by a shipment
of e-cigarettes.

 

"It's a new technology, and we're
trying to catch up to the potential risks behind it," he said. "If
nothing else, it's a battery issue, and, to some extent, it's a question
of quality. You get what you paid for."

 

Cynthia Cabrera, executive director for the
e-cigarette trade group the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association,
said she would expect the industry to take a closer look at fire safety
if the investigation determines an e-cigarette was the cause of the
Logan fire.

 

"We always want the safest possible product on
the market, from laptops to cellphones and vapour products," she said.
"This is a new issue. Consumers have been travelling with vapour
products and e-cigs for quite a long time. In my mind, this is probably
an isolated incident."

 

The Logan Airport fire happened Saturday night
as luggage was being loaded onto a JetBlue plane bound for Buffalo, New
York. Real Hamilton-Romeo, a spokeswoman for the airline, said that all
its aircraft are equipped with fire detectors and fire-suppression
devices in the cargo hold.