These days, it is not uncommon to see someone vaping in the grocery store, at the park or even in the workplace. You may give a start when you see the “smoke” in these public places, but many municipalities allow vape smoking indoors, at least for now.
However, legality is not necessarily a measure of safety, and you may have wondered whether you should be concerned about breathing in the thick clouds of vapor exhaled by vape users. Are there chemicals present in secondhand vape “smoke”? How might they potentially impact the health of you and your children?
How is vaping different from smoking cigarettes?
Vapes, also called e-cigarettes, were first introduced to consumers as a tobacco alternative in the early 2000s. Manufacturers marketed the product to smokers as a way to inhale nicotine without the cancer-causing tar and other harmful chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes. Since then, vaping has become a trend in and of itself.
Vaping is a multibillion-dollar industry, and there are a wide variety of different vapes and vaping liquids on the market today. American public health experts disagree about the overall safety of vaping, especially when it comes to the use of vapes among high school students, with whom the trend is especially popular. Some argue that vapes help decrease cigarette smoking among high school students, while others worry that vaping may entice young people eventually to switch to traditional cigarettes.
What is vaping?
Vapes—short for “vaporizers”—come in all shapes and sizes. Some are smaller and may look like traditional cigarettes or USB storage devices. Others are larger and can look more like a science project than a smoking apparatus. Despite the differences in appearance, the technology behind most vapes is relatively similar. Most devices are powered by a rechargeable battery that is used to heat the vaping liquid, turning it to an aerosol that vapers then inhale.
Vaping liquids, also called e-juice or vape juice, come in a wide range of flavors—many of which may resemble desserts, fruit or candy—and contain varying levels of nicotine. Some may even contain no nicotine at all. These liquids are typically made up of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin to vaporize the nicotine. Both compounds are generally recognized as safe for consumption in small amounts, though contact with them may irritate the skin, eyes or respiratory system.
Vaping advocates promote vaping as a safe alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes for three reasons:
- There is no combustion, or burning, involved in vaping, meaning that people that vape “smoke” is free of many carcinogens found in cigarette smoke.
- Vapes do not create the harmful tar that causes cigarettes to be so hazardous to public health.
- Vape liquids may not contain the wide range of dangerous chemicals present in traditional cigarettes.
For these reasons touted by vape advocates and manufacturers, many people feel comfortable vaping in situations where smoking cigarettes would be strictly prohibited, such as inside public buildings and in close proximity to other people. However, secondhand exposure to vaping aerosols may not be as harmless you think.
Is secondhand “smoke” from vaping harmful?
If you have ever been around someone while they are vaping, you have undoubtedly noticed the rather large clouds of vapor that they exhale. Though some may refer to it as secondhand smoke out of habit, this often sweet-smelling cloud is actually a vapor. This vapor may smell better than cigarette smoke and not linger in the air or on clothing and furniture for as long, but is it really as harmless as vapers and vape manufacturers would have you believe?
One of the major sources of secondhand smoke from cigarettes is sidestream smoke, the smoke that drifts off the end of a lit cigarette and is not inhaled by the smoker. Fortunately, e-cigarettes do not emit vapor when they are not being used. Moreover, studies have found that secondhand exposure to these vapors is not as harmful as secondhand exposure to cigarette smoke. However, this does not mean that e-cigarette vapors are completely free of toxic substances (Goniewicz, et. al, 2013).
When used, vapes can emit significant amounts of nicotine into the air, though not always as much as traditional cigarettes. However, the nicotine levels in the secondhand vapors from e-cigarettes are high enough to cause potential involuntary nicotine exposure to non-vapers in the same room (Czogala, et. al, 2014). Additionally, a 2014 review of vaping studies found that the aerosols exhaled by vapers can contain formaldehyde, acetone, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, potential symptoms of exposure to secondhand vaping aerosol may be similar to symptoms of exposure to any airborne pollutants and can include:
- Coughing or wheezing
- Respiratory infections
- Inflammation in the throat
- Reduced lung function
- Aggravated asthma and allergy symptoms
Secondhand vapor and your indoor air quality
Vape “smoke” may not be as potentially harmful as smoke from traditional cigarettes, but it is far from healthy. A 2014 study found that the vapor emitted from e-cigarettes contains emissions that can negatively impact indoor air quality. The study found that vaping aerosols can contain nicotine, aluminum and particulate matter (inhalable particles that can irritate the respiratory system and cause health issues) that can impact the health of those exposed to secondhand vapor from e-cigarettes. While some pollutants from vapors and smoke can be filtered using an air purifier, the best way to maintain your indoor air quality is to keep all vaping outdoors.
Vaping in public spaces: Policies and bans
When vapes first came on the market, they were largely unregulated and vaping was allowed in many public spaces in which cigarette smoking was prohibited. In recent years, both the federal and state governments have taken steps to guard the public against involuntary exposure to potentially harmful vaping aerosols. According to the CDC, a rising number of states and municipalities are amending smoking bans in public places to include vaping, regardless of nicotine content. It is likely that more state and local governments will follow suit as long as the public continues to be concerned about secondhand vaping exposure (Mello, et. al, 2016).
Should parents be concerned about their children’s exposure to secondhand vape “smoke”?
According to a recent American Lung Association poll, the majority of American adults either:
- Think that vaping aerosols are not harmful to children or
- Do not know whether this secondhand vapor is potentially harmful.
Unfortunately, this means that many parents do not recognize the importance of protecting their children from exposure to secondhand vaping aerosols. According to the Surgeon General, vaping aerosols can expose children to harmful airborne pollutants that they would not normally come into contact with.
Children are more susceptible to the health effects associated with inhaling airborne pollutants because of their developing respiratory systems and lower body weights. Additionally, nicotine is toxic to infants and children, and nicotine exposure can have adverse health effects that include impaired brain and lung development.
While it may not be possible to keep your child from coming into contact with secondhand “smoke” from vapes, you can teach them to keep away from vapor clouds as they would secondhand smoke from cigarettes. If possible, they should avoid being in enclosed spaces with someone who is vaping, just as they would avoid being in an enclosed space with someone who is smoking cigarettes.
The vapor from e-cigarettes may contain less harmful carcinogens than cigarette smoke, but that does not mean that it is completely harmless. As a rule, the less airborne pollutants you are breathing in, the better. By keeping your home free of any type of secondhand smoke, you can help improve the quality of the air that you and your family breathe.
Our solution for indoor air quality
Secondhand vape in public places and inside your home can affect the air you breathe. Surprisingly, you can find the same pollutants from vaping that you will find from everyday activities like cooking or burning a candle. For better indoor air quality, you can prevent the source of pollution and ventilate your home during activities like cooking or painting.
An additional step for clean air is to use an air purifier. The technology behind the Molekule air purifier is different. Instead of simply collecting pollutants on filters, the Molekule technology breaks them down at the molecular level. You can find more about the technology here and how it can help improve your indoor air quality.