(KNXV) - Vaping, the latest phenomenon to hit the cigarette industry, is spurring health concerns.
Across the U.S., poison control centers have seen a 161 percent increase in calls from people with concerns regarding electronic cigarettes, according to a Kosair Children's hospital report . In an investigation led by KNXV in Phoenix, Ariz., local fire officials say they have noticed an increase in the number of fires started by electronic cigarettes.
In 2003, a Chinese pharmacist invented the e-cigarette as an alternative to smoking. Instead of lighting up traditional tobacco-filled cigarettes, users inhale nicotine in the form of a vapor from a battery-powered device.
The process known as "vaping" has been sold to consumers as a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes.
The regional poison control center at the Louisville, Kentucky-based children's hospital, received close to 40 calls about e-cigarettes so far this year -- a 333 percent increase from the nine calls received in 2012.
Researchers found that three in 10 e-cigarettes contain levels of formaldehyde and acrolein -- known carcinogens -- that are nearly equal to levels found in standard cigarettes.
"More than half of the calls we have received were concerning children," said Ashley Webb, board-certified toxicologist and director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center of Kosair Children's Hospital.
"Kids are picking up the liquid cartridge when cartridges are left accessible or when an adult is changing the cartridge," Webb said. "They're also getting a hold of the e-cigarette and taking it apart to expose the liquid. They then either ingest the liquid or get it onto their skin. Even on the skin, the nicotine is absorbed and can create adverse side effects."
"I got to the bedroom door and it was just a huge fire," Vicki Orman said. She and her husband Dale saw the place they called home for the last 18 years lit with flames. "You see your belongings, your home on fire, it's terrible."
Captain Gary Hernandez is an arson investigator with Phoenix Fire Department and this isn't the first time he has seen a blaze because of an electronic cigarette.
According to fire officials, the cartridge of the e-cigarette overheated while it was plugged into the charger, sparking the fire.
"They had plugged this in the charger, put it on top of the bed; they left," Hernandez said. "That's a very dangerous thing."
Vicki and her three dogs made it out safely, but Dale suffered smoke inhalation and spent three days in the hospital.
"I'm not sure why it's happening and why they're malfunctioning, but I think you can be keenly aware that these can malfunction and these can cause a fire," Hernandez said.
Dale said he looked at the instructions.
"It didn't say anything about how long you're supposed to leave it charge," he said. "No warnings or anything."
There are several reports of e-cigarette related fires involving various name brands across the country.
Vicki said she used a reusable e-cigarette by the name brand Smokin T. We contacted the manufacturing company about the fire but did not receive a response.
It's been two months, and the Ormans and their three dogs are still living in a hotel room.
Vicki said she is upset she doesn't have a house to come home to.
"I'm angry they put out a product that is so dangerous," she said. "I am angry that I lost some personal property that I can no longer replace. I am angry at myself that I didn't know better."
According to Euromonitor International , e-cigarettes are a $2 billion global industry, and for smokers trying to kick the habit, the devices often appear to provide a way to wean off cigarettes while avoiding health risks like cancer.
Scientists with the Food and Drug Administration and American Cancer Society say there is currently no scientific evidence about the safety of e-cigarettes.
In initial lab tests, the FDA found detectable levels of carcinogens and toxic chemicals, including an ingredient used in anti-freeze.
Congress gave the FDA authority to regulate cigarettes, cigarette tobacco and smokeless tobacco in 2009. The FDA is in the process of compiling regulations to oversee e-cigarettes, but, right now, the only law in place says manufacturers can't sell the devices to help you stop smoking.
The American Cancer Society said e-cigarettes have not been approved by the FDA for use to quit smoking. Experts add that no evidence exists to show they even help people quit smoking.
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