Is Second-hand e-Cigarette Vapor Harmful to Bystanders? eCig 101

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There seems to be more than a fair share of fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding e-cigarettes. One of the big things driving much of the negative sentiment surrounding electronic cigarettes is the idea of second-hand vapor.  Cigarettes, of course, have gained much notoriety for second-hand smoke, but does that translate to their vapor-producing doppelgangers?

[note] This topic has been around for about as long as vaping itself.  For more perspective on the subject, check out this post.

On the surface, of course there is not second-hand smoke with e-cigarettes.  There’s no smoke to begin with.  But, what about the vapor that is produced when a user (also known as a vaper) exhales their stream of robo-steam?

It seems like a fair enough question, after all if we don’t know what’s in the vapor (we totally do know), who knows what might come out. So, perhaps it might be best to start with the ingredients in general.

This will be a brief overview, if you want to get down and dirty with e-liquid, be sure to check out the installment of eCig 101 dedicated to e-liquid. There are essentially three or four components that make up the e-liquid:

  • Propylene glycol
  • Vegetable glycerin
  • Nicotine
  • Food-grade flavors

Compare that with the literally thousands of ingredients found in your garden-variety cigarette and you can start to see the difference between the stray emissions of cigarettes and the vapor puffed out by vapers.

Still not convinced? I’d hope not, that’s the sort of basic stuff you get from e-cigarette salesmen, I go deeper here.

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2nd hand vapor articleSo, we know the basic ingredients, great.  But, of course when you apply heat to something, it can change its composition. There’s your mystery right there.

It would be a mystery if it weren’t for several studies specifically about e-cigarette vapor. Most have found a few trace elements and other things that might indicate there’s more to the vapor than meets the eye.  Most notably one study claims they found traces of heavy metals. However, some researchers believe the methodology of the study might be at fault there.

In that study, they used machines to produce the vapor.  Machines don’t notice something we like to call a “dry hit.”  That’s when there’s not enough e-liquid getting to the heating element, producing a rather gross taste.  Vapers would quite using the e-cigarette at that point to fix the problem, but the machines don’t know any better and keep puffing away.

Another study often quoted by the types who enjoy a little fear mongery found that e-cigarette users experienced some airway constriction after using an e-cigarette. It turns out that just about any humid environment like a sauna, or Disney World in July does the exact same thing to the airway.  It’s a normal reaction.

Finally, another study found formaldehyde in exhaled e-cigarette vapor.  This one is a little less cut and dry. While humans actually produce the stuff in small quantities, there may be part of the vaporizing process that produces additional formaldehyde.

All these studies looked at the vapor up-close, as in it was immediately collected, so it may potentially show what happens to the user, they aren’t very good gauges for what sort of second-hand vapor effects there might be.

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basket of tomatoesFortunately, there are some studies that examined ambient air content. One in particular was trying to determine how much unabsorbed nicotine was floating around.  They had four vapors puff away in a closed room for a couple hours and then measured the air quality.

They did indeed find some nicotine present, a tiny fraction of what you see in second-hand smoke. It was around as much as you’d get from a nice big plate of eggplant parm. Even more surprising was that they didn’t find much of anything else, all other trace elements were below the threshold of their instruments’ sensitivity.

Of course, even that study doesn’t mimic real-world conditions terribly well.  Chances are really good a non-user isn’t going to be trapped in a tiny room with four dudes puffing away for hours.

e-Cigarette vapor in general dissipates very quickly, so in a large room, or even a room with any kind of ventilation.

From a practical standpoint, I think you’d be better off worrying about second-hand tomato exposure than second-hand vapor.

This article is a part of an ongoing series called eCig 101 which is dedicated to covering basic e-cigarette topics in an easy-to understand and in-depth method.  As always, the comments are open below!

Steve K

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