Instead of inhaling smoke, users of electronic cigarettes (called e-cigarettes or e-cigs, for short), breathe in vapor -- so there’s no way e-cigs can expose bystanders to second-hand smoke. But that doesn’t mean electronic cigarettes don’t pollute.
The common claim that e-cigs emit only harmless water vapor is simply not true, according to an American Cancer Society (ACS) report published in Cardiology. Scientists have discovered that e-cig vapor, exhaled and possibly emitted from e-cig cartridges, contains invisible toxins that end up in nearby air.
The devices heat a liquid mixture composed of nicotine, flavoring, and other chemicals, producing an inhaled mist that typically delivers lower levels of many toxins found in standard cigarettes. When users exhale the vapor, it still contains some nicotine, along with a variety of ultrafine particles, carcinogens, and other toxic chemicals that can end up in the lungs of bystanders. For example, levels of the nicotine metabolite cotinine have been found in the blood of non-smokers who were in the vicinity of e-cig users.
German scientists at Fraunhofer WKI (Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research) conducted research to compare what’s left in the air after people smoked traditional and e-cigs in test chambers. The results, published in the journal Indoor Air, showed that e-cigarettes did release lower levels of pollutants compared to standard cigarettes.
However, vaporized propylene glycol, an additive typically used in tobacco that is known to irritate airways, was released into the air from e-cigarettes in a form that could possibly go deep into the lungs. “In the e-cigarette, vaporized substances create an aerosol of ultrafine particles which become even finer when inhaled into the lungs,” said Tobias Schripp, co-author of thestudy.
A study from the University of Southern California (USC) concluded that e-cigarettes pollute nearby air far less than traditional cigarettes – but only in some ways.
"Offices and rooms -- not laboratories -- are the environments where you're likely to be exposed to second-hand e-cigarette smoke, so we did our testing there to better simulate real-life exposure conditions," said Constantinos Sioutas, professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
The result of the indoor air studies, published in Journal of Environmental Science, Processes and Impacts, revealed that e-cigs produced 10 times less pollutants than standard cigarettes and close-to-zero exposure to specific cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, found in regular cigarette smoke.
But the research also revealed e-cigs released a host of harmful metals into the air at significantly higher levels than regular cigarettes. E-cig vapor produced the toxic element chromium, which is absent from traditional cigarettes, as well as 4 times more nickel than standard cigarettes. Other toxic metals, including lead and zinc, were found in second-hand e-cigarette vapor, too, but in concentrations lower than traditional cigarettes.
The researchers think the metal particles probably come from the cartridge of the e-cigarettes themselves. This suggests that better manufacturing standards for the devices could reduce the amount of toxins the devices release into the air.
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Portland State University researchers found that e-cig devices that produce the most heat as they create vapor can release large amounts of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde.
“The popular ‘tank system’ e-cigarettes allow users to really turn up the heat and deliver high amounts of vapor, or e-cigarette smoke,” said lead researcher David H. Peyton. "Our research shows that when heated at higher temperatures, e-cigarette juices can vaporize and form large amounts of ‘hidden formaldehyde,’ five to 15 times higher than the amount of formaldehyde in traditional cigarettes.”
The whole subject of the safety of e-cigs -- and how to make them safer -- is currently being researched and debated, including whether the devices should be regulated in public areas due to air quality concerns. The ACS’s director of international cancer control, Thomas Glynn, pointed out in an editorial that the scientific community remains split on the impact of e-cigarette vapor on indoor air quality.
However, The American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Indoor Environmental Quality Committee and Risk Assessment Committee has issued a report calling for restricting the use of e-cigarettes in public places due to health concerns.
E-cigarette pollutants may be especially harmful to children and pregnant women, said Brian King, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’sOffice on Smoking and Health. "Clean air should be the standard, whether that's air free from secondhand smoke or the aerosol from an e-cigarette product,” he said in a recent USA Today interview.
The Food and Drug Administration has moved to regulate e-cigarettes and, in the meantime, several states are proposing their own rules, including possibly banning e-cigarettes in no-smoking areas. For now, a common sense approach seems reasonable, including keeping children away from e-cigarette users and avoiding confined areas where many people are using e-cigs and potentially increasing indoor air pollution.
March 25, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN