This question seems of even more importance lately, as more and more counties, cities and now National Parks are banning the use of e-cigarettes, even before examining their secondhand effect. That is why several research teams have begun to analyze the effect of secondhand vapor, if any, to better understand their place in society and acceptance in public places.
What we know about Secondhand Vapor
Several studies have shown that we are beginning to understand a lot about the potential effects of second-hand vapor. It is important to remember that scientifically you cannot ethically test humans for second-hand exposure; nor is there a way to determine long term effects, since e-cigarettes only hit the market back in 2007. You can, however, analyze the vapor that is emitted in an attempt to determine the potential health effects that may exist.
The overwhelming consensus is that second-hand vapor is not only safer, but some believe that it is even, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Varying studies have come up with different benchmarks to analyze vapor, but still most continue to confirm that the aerosol emitted in the action of vaping is not particularly harmful.
Most studies you find will agree, that there is a general benign quality with e-cigarette aerosol, or vapor, especially in the secondhand sense. A January 2014 study, published in BMC Central confirmed these beliefs when examining the idea of second-hand exposure in the workplace and beyond. In their findings, they share that, “There was no evidence of potential for exposures of e-cigarette users to contaminants that are associated with risk to health at a level that would warrant attention.” In fact, they predicted that secondhand exposures would be less than 1% of the threshold limit value that is placed on workplace air quality. While this study sees little harm in vapor, they still advise that more research should be done on first-hand exposure. The researchers conclude by reaffirming the safety of second-hand vapor emission, “Current state of knowledge about the chemistry of liquids and aerosols associated with electronic cigarettes indicates that there is no evidence that vaping produces inhalable exposures to contaminants of the aerosol that would warrant health concerns.”
Later in 2014, another study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health more specially looked at the phenolic and carbonyl compounds that are found in e-cigarette vapor. Both of these chemical compounds can cause health problems in users who are overexposed to them. However, they do not seem to be a concern for second-hand exposure, finding that, “exhaled e-cigarette aerosol does not increase bystander exposure for phenolics and carbonyls above the levels observed in exhaled breaths of air.”
Another study published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research looked specifically at the effects of secondhand e-cigarette vapor and their findings also suggest that secondhand vapor really shouldn’t be an issue. They actually criticize the idea of outdoor e-cigarette bans stating: “There is a large body of evidence suggesting that e-cigarettes are relatively harmless to the people who use them, making claims about the dangers of second-hand exposure even more spurious — especially in well-ventilated outdoor spaces where people can easily move away from someone using the product.”
E-Cigarette Vapor vs. Tobacco Smoke
In a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Medical Practice researchers from University College London acknowledged the use of electronic cigarettes as replacements for traditional combustible cigarettes, and theorized about the potential benefit for the public health community. The researchers found that “the vapor contains nothing like the concentrations of carcinogens and toxins as cigarette smoke. In fact, toxin concentrations are almost all well below 1/20th that of cigarette smoke.”
In fact, the byproducts that are measured in e-cigarette vapor are across the board minuscule, especially in comparison to traditional cigarettes. Back in 2012, another study looked to determine the effect of e-cigarette vapor on indoor air quality. “For all byproducts measured, electronic cigarettes produce very small exposures about tobacco cigarettes. The study indicates no apparent risk to human health from e-cigarette emissions based on the compounds analyzed.”
Also, one of the greatest benefits when it comes to cutting back on second-hand emissions is electronic cigarettes do not give off any standing emissions. Dr. Neal Benowitz is an MD and a former member of the FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee. He is not a staunch e-cigarette supporter, but he is quick to point out this very important fact. All of the second-hand exposure from e-cigarettes comes from the user’s exhaled breathe, which is, in most cases, considerably less than what was inhaled in the first place. Cigarettes, by contrast, pollute the atmosphere and others’ lungs in a continuous stream. According to Dr. Benowitz, “seventy-five percent of the smoke generated by cigarettes is side stream smoke, and that goes into the environment.” Even if e-cigarette aerosol were as dangerous as cigarette smoke, which we have seen it is nowhere near, just the sheer difference in the amount of emissions would make a huge dent in our overall public health.
E-Cigarette Vapor vs. Ambient Air
Even with there being so little concern about second-hand e-cigarette vapor, it isn’t fair to continue to compare it to cigarette smoke. Of course, vapor is going to be better than smoke, but let’s face it cigarettes don’t exactly set the bar that high. How e-cigarette vapor compares to the air we breathe every day may be a better way to determine if it truly is safe for nonusers to be around.
One study, published in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology looks at several popular American and British brands of e-cigarettes to compare the vapor in e-cigarette aerosol against what we breathe in our regular air every day. For the analysis the researchers studied three flavors of Blu eCigs, which account for approximately 50 percent of the U.S. market, and two flavors of SKYCIGS, which represent around 30 percent e-cigarettes sold in the U.K. They compared the output of these products with different air samples as well as with the smoke generated by several brands of traditional cigarettes.
The researchers measured eight kinds of harmful and potential harmful constituents (HPHC): carbon monoxide, carbonyls, phenolics, volatiles, metals, tobacco-specific nitrosamines, polyaromatic amines, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. When combined, the weight of all the HPHC found in the e-cigarette vapor was less than 0.17 milligram. Ambient air is estimated to have 0.16 milligrams of HPHCs. This shows us that breathing in second-hand vapor is virtually the same as inhaling the air that most of us breathe every day. For comparison’s sake, cigarettes produce a whopping 30.6 milligrams of HPHCs—180 times as much as the e-cigarettes tested. Still, that’s just the average. The highest level of HPHC was found in Marlboro Gold brand cigarettes which generated 3,357 milligrams of HPHCs. The study states that on average, “mainstream cigarette smoke delivered approximately 1500 times more harmful and potentially harmful constituents tested when compared to e-cigarette aerosol or puffing room air.”
An even more recent study, published in Journal of Chromatography A measured levels of 156 different volatile organic compounds (VOC) that is found in indoor air, as well as the smoke of tobacco cigarettes, exhaled tobacco smoke and exhaled e-cigarette vapors. It should be noted, that not all of the VOCs in question are toxic, they are just simply what they are, volatile organic compounds. The results were surprising. In the two e-cigarettes tested, they found 17 VOCs in one and 25 VOCs in the other. Not surprising, cigarette smoke contained a whopping 86 VOCs. Indoor air tested for 36 VOCs and normal, exhaled breath itself contains 42. Again, not all VOCs are toxic, but the numbers point out that e-cigarette vapor is likely still fairly harmless, that is presuming it is safe to breathe the air as it is now. In fact, some carcinogenic compounds that were found in exhaled breath, aren’t even present in the vapor.
What About Nicotine?
Nicotine isn’t in all electronic cigarettes, but it is in most. Nicotine is a fairly safe substance to the human system, except for the fact that it is so addictive. Researchers believe that even though e-cigarette vapor appears to be for all intents and purposes harmless to nonusers, people could still, unintentionally, be exposed to nicotine. According to the study, using an e-cigarette in indoor environments, “may involuntarily expose nonusers to nicotine but not to toxic tobacco-specific combustion products.” Still no one wants to be exposed to nicotine, even if it is in scope much more harmless. The study also points out that the level of nicotine emitted in vapor is still about ten times less than any nicotine emitted in cigarette smoke.
There’s already a lot of news out there regarding whether or not e-cigarettes are safe. No one can answer the question of their safety definitively just yet but whether they are or not what they do is stand a chance at making a significant difference in our overall public health. Based on the given evidence, there is no doubt that people will be healthier if those around them make the decision to vape instead of smoke, not to mention most vapers report feeling healthier too.
Currently, new bans are going up all over the place, and now in National Parks, but the reality is, the big RV that’s driving through Yellowstone, will be harming the air you breathe far more than anyone who is using an electronic cigarette. Yes, we know e-cigarettes are safer for the environment (not to mention how much less trash is created, and fewer trees cut down) but in the second-hand sense, they are even less harmful than what you breathe when you are parked in traffic or pumping gas into your car.
This doesn’t mean that vapers have the right to blow their puffs in everyone’s face, or even to do it anywhere they want, especially until more research is done, but in the meantime the fact that the e-cigarette aerosol seems fairly benign should be a comfort to those who are worried about the potential for harmful outcomes of second-hand exposure.
Every year an estimated 53,800 people die from secondhand smoke exposure. Even if e-cigarettes were harmful to the user itself, the lives they would save simply by eliminating cigarettes would be enough to warrant their widespread acceptance. The truth is most people who use electronic cigarettes are trying to improve their health for the better. Even more important to most, however, is their own family and friends. When people choose to vape instead of smoking, whether they know it or not, they are making a decision to help not just their life, but the lives of everyone around them.