Electronic cigarettes, which come in a variety of flavors, have skyrocketed in popularity since their introduction to the market around 15 years ago, especially among middle and high school students. However, evidence suggests that e-cigarettes, even when used in a controlled environment, may not be as “safe” as some people imagine.
While the risks of inhaling secondhand cigarette smoke are well-known, research into how inhaling secondhand vapor, or aerosol, affects the body is currently ongoing. And Dr. Talat Islam, an assistant professor of research in population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, says that people may not realize how dangerous it is for their health.
A study published last year in the journal Thorax found that young adults who don’t smoke or vape themselves are more likely to have bronchitis symptoms and shortness of breath if they are exposed to aerosols from e-cigarettes.
“Heavy metals and ultrafine particles are found in vaping aerosols,” Islam said. “If someone else is vaping in the same place, you’re inhaling it in—those particles are getting into your lungs and causing harm.”
In addition to nicotine, the aerosols contain heavy metals like lead, nickel, and zinc, as well as cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and diacetyl, which have been linked to a condition known as “popcorn lung” in vapers.
According to a study published in the journal Tobacco Control in 2021 in New York, the use of e-cigarettes increased the number of tiny particles in the surrounding room. Fine particles, which are small enough to get deep into the lungs, can make heart and lung diseases worse and even kill people.
According to federal data, e-cigarettes were the most popular tobacco product among middle and high school students in the United States in 2021. A 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open says that between 2015 and 2017, about 1 in 4 kids were exposed to secondhand e-cigarette aerosols. In 2018, that number jumped to 1 in 3 students.
“As a whole, there’s a notion that vaping isn’t as hazardous as smoking,” Islam explained. “I believe that’s why there’s so much secondhand exposure.”
Dr. Ellen Boakye, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Baltimore, thinks that by the time the full health effects are known, it may be too late.
“The health implications of smoking were not discovered until years later, and we’re seeing the same thing with e-cigarettes,” said Boakye, a fellow with the American Heart Association’s Tobacco Center for Regulatory Science.
She continued, “There is research that suggests e-cigarette use is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.” “As more research becomes available, we may be able to see that this link is causative, both for e-cigarette usage and secondhand vapor exposure.”
People should avoid vaping as much as possible, according to Boakye, ideally by leaving the vicinity. She also advised vapers to quit, stressing that vaping cessation programs require more financing.
“Some of the research we’re doing right now reveals that a lot of (young people) are trying to quit, but there’s not a lot of assistance for them,” she said, noting that most nicotine replacement medications are designed for adults. “I believe this is an issue to which a lot of attention should be paid.” Call 800-QUITNOW (784-8669), text “QUIT” to 47848, or go to smokefree.gov for assistance.
Experts say the message is the same whether you are inhaling traffic pollution, cigarette smoke, or e-cigarette aerosols. “We want to inhale that fresh air,” Islam explained. “Anything you put there has an effect,” says the narrator.