Are e-cigarettes safe for the people around them?

New research provides some reassurance, but much remains unknown

Published: December 18, 2013 06:00 AM

A central question in the growing debate over electronic cigarettes is whether the battery-powered nicotine devices are safe not just for the people using them, but for those around them who might breathe in some of the "vapor" exhaled by the user. That's a likely prospect, since e-cigarettes are often allowed in places where cigarette smoking has been banned, such as restaurants and public parks. Now a new study has looked at just what's in that vapor and how it compares to secondhand smoke from cigarettes, which is known to be toxic.

Researchers in Buffalo, N.Y., and Poland compared vapors generated from three brands of e-cigarettes with tobacco smoke from regular cigarettes. Samples of each were measured for their levels of nicotine, airborne particles, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that might irritate the respiratory system and cause headaches or dizziness. 

They found that the e-cigarette vapor contained nicotine but not the particle pollutants and other, toxic compounds found in tobacco smoke, which are byproducts of combustion. And the level of nicotine in the vapor averaged only about one-tenth the concentration in the tobacco smoke. The authors concluded that using e-cigarettes in indoors would not expose nonusers to "toxic tobacco-specific combustion products" but would expose them to small amounts of nicotine. And they emphasized that more research is needed to determine the possible health effects of even low levels of nicotine exposure in vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, and people with heart ailments. The study also didn't test for some of the other potentially worrisome components of secondhand vapor that some earlier studies have found, including propylene glycol and formaldehyde.  

Bottom line: This study adds to the evidence that vapor from e-cigs is probably safer to inhale secondhand than cigarette smoke—though that doesn't mean it's 100 percent risk free. If you're pregnant or have young children with you, or if you have a cardiovascular condition that might be aggravated by exposure to nicotine, you might want to politely move away if someone powers up an e-cigarette in your vicinity.

Jamie Kopf

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