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Does Second Hand Vapor From E-Cigs Contain Toxic Metals?

While there are still not extensive clinical results regarding e-cigarettes and the effects of first and second hand exposure to their vapor, all studies seem to conclude that e-cigarette vapor is far less harmful than smoke from combustible tobacco products. While vapor is clearly a better alternative to traditional smoking, e-cigarettes still release a certain amount of toxins in the air. Most studies thus far have focused on nicotine related effects, but a recent study expands the search for the negative effects of second hand vapor.

In August 2014, the Journal of Environmental Science, Processes and Impacts, published a study focusing on the particles that are generated by e-cigarettes. Comparing them to regular cigarettes, they analyzed the degree of exposure to different chemical agents a user, or a person exposed to second hand vapor, may experience.

Researchers at the University of Southern California found second hand vapor from e-cigarettes exhibited an overall 10-fold decrease in exposure to harmful particles in comparison to cigarette smoke. The study did, however, find an increase in exposure to some potentially harmful metals coming from e-cigarette vapor. E-cigarettes did exhibit less harmful organic compounds and an overall decrease in toxic metals than tobacco smoke, however the vapor studied did contain chromium and nickel, at a level higher than regular tobacco cigarettes. However, it should be noted that lead and zinc found in e-cigarette vapor does appear at a much lower level than combustible tobacco products.

“The metal particles likely come from the cartridge of the e-cigarette devices themselves – which opens up the possibility that better manufacturing standards for the devices could reduce the quantity of metals in the smoke,” said Arian Saffari, a PhD student and one of the authors of the report. “Studies of this kind are necessary for implementing effective regulatory measures. E-cigarettes are so new, there just isn’t much research available on them yet.”

This study focused on one type of e-cigarette, and the results would likely vary based on what device, brand and e-liquid are used. This study used vapor from the Elips Serie C e-cigarette, a popular brand in Europe.

Dr. Constantinos Sioutas, another author of the recent report, stated their “results demonstrate that overall electronic cigarettes seem to be less harmful than regular cigarettes, but their elevated content of toxic metals such as nickel and chromium do raise concerns.” Despite these more recent concerns, this report and other previous studies continue to confirm the improved safety of e-cigarette used versus traditional cigarettes. In this study they find that vapor from e-cigarettes contains almost no polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are the cancer causing compounds that are released when one smokes a tobacco cigarette.

Previous studies have also reported on second hand effects, finding nicotine in the second hand vapors. A study in 2013 from the Society for the Research of Nicotine and Tobacco found traces of nicotine in the vapor they tested. In their conclusion they stated, “Using an e-cigarette in indoor environments may involuntarily expose nonusers to nicotine but not to toxic tobacco-specific combustion products. More research is needed to evaluate health consequences of second hand exposure to nicotine.” Without knowing the effects of second hand nicotine, it is difficult to gauge the severity of the secondary exposure to the vapor.

The discussion of E-cigarettes and the effects of second hand vapor are a highly debated topic and have come under their own dose of scrutiny lately. Just this August, the World Health Organization recommended stiff regulations and overall bans on using e-cigarette devices indoors.  As of early 2014, 108 municipalities and 3 states had enacted a ban on the indoor use of these devices and it seems sure that more states will consider heavier restrictions as well. However, without more testing, these changes might be based on unfounded and restricted ways of thinking. The question that remains is not about whether or not second hand vapor is safer than cigarettes; that is clearly established. The real question is what second hand effects, if any at all, does the vapor really have. As more studies are conducted we hope to find the answer.

The authors of the study for the Journal of Environmental Sciences suggest that quality control in the manufacturing of e-cigarettes is the best solution for now. Their final conclusion states: “Implementing quality control protocols on the manufacture of e-cigarettes would further minimize the emission of metals from these devices and improve their safety and associated health effects.” In such a new market that is rapidly changing, quality control standards have yet to be fully established, though clearly the need is there.

For the time being, safety is of the utmost concern. E-cigarette users should practice proper etiquette. Just because it is vapor, does not mean it is a hundred percent safe. Until more thorough testing is established, it’s far better for a user to be safe, rather than sorry.

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