Secondhand smoke gets a lot of attention, and now that vaping is popular, attention is being focused on secondhand vapor. Some studies show that it is benign, while others claim it to be as dangerous as secondhand smoke.
We scoured the research trying to find the truth behind secondhand vapor and whether or not it poses any risk.
What We Know
The vast majority of scientific studies show that secondhand vapor presents no threat to the health of bystanders. Although this may be true, it has not stopped multiple sources in the media and scientific communities from voicing dissenting opinions.
What could be causing these differing views? What do the studies that have examined secondhand vapor conclude?
Before we take a look at why some believe that secondhand vapor poses a threat, let’s first figure out…
What is in secondhand vapor?
Second-hand vapor is vapor that produced after an individual exhales from a puff on a vaporizer, electronic cigarette or e-cigar.
A study published in the Journal of Chromatography examined the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in secondhand vapor and compared them to the number of VOCs in exhaled breath, indoor air, and smoke from tobacco cigarettes.
VOCs are organic compounds that have a low boiling point which causes them to become gaseous easily. Some of them can be toxic and result in long-term health effects.
The study concluded that not only did secondhand vapor have less VOCs than tobacco smoke, it also had less than exhaled air. The study did find nicotine in secondhand vapor. However, it was in such low amounts as to cause no harm to those in the environment.
So far, we know that secondhand vapor contains less toxic VCOs than both exhaled breath and tobacco smoke, and only a splash of nicotine at a minute level.
What else is out there?
Let’s keep digging.
Air Sample Studies of Second-hand Vapor
The California Department of Public Health conducted air samplings of vape shops throughout California.
The samplings took place in vape shop with over 10 customers and employees that were all puffing away on their vaporizers. The shop was not ventilated and, to put it in terms you vape enthusiasts may understand, “There were some epic clouds.”
The researchers found no trace of nicotine or any other compounds that are known to be dangerous. They found trace amounts of formaldehyde, but at levels that are consistent with normal outdoor air.
The findings showed that secondhand vapor posed almost no threat to people in the environment to exposure to dangerous toxins.
To sum it up, in a cloudy vape shop, with more vapor than any other place the average person will ever visit, no hazardous levels of exposure to any dangerous toxins were discovered.
The list of studies exonerating secondhand vapor from any threat to human health is enormous. We’ll include some more links at the bottom of this article.
It would seem with this amount of evidence that secondhand vapor would be dismissed as harmless.
Does anyone out there believe that secondhand vapor poses a threat to human health?
An article published on scarymommy.com highlights the major talking points of those that believe secondhand vapor presents a risk to bystanders and the public.
The first main argument presented in the article uses a study by the CDC that found that the majority of Americans believe that secondhand vapor causes little to no harm. The study concludes that it is important for adults and children to become aware of the potential harms of secondhand vapor.
Where did the CDC get the idea that secondhand vapor was harmful?
A 2016 report published by the Surgeon General argued that secondhand vapor contained nicotine, heavy metals, and other dangerous toxins. This report encouraged the idea that secondhand vapor was a harmful substance that the public should avoid. The CDC used this report as the basis for their study and argued that the fact the public had no idea about “the dangers” was a cause for concern.
Why did the Surgeon General’s report get such different results than the studies we mentioned earlier?
The report noted that these chemicals were present, but it failed to account for the fact that they were present in such low quantities that they would have no impact on human health and that many are also present in the normal air we all breathe.
The Surgeon General’s Report cited studies that found harmful chemicals in vapor and used that as a means of arguing that secondhand vapor poses a threat to the public. Studies that only examine secondhand vapor have not produced those results.
This may leave you wondering if vaping itself is bad for you. The Surgeon General’s report mentions that formaldehyde was discovered in the aerosol emitted by vaporizers.
THE FORMALDEHYDE MYTH
One of the most widely publicized studies regarding vaping was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015.
You may have seen headlines touting the idea that e-cigarette vapor contained formaldehyde. NBC, NPR, and other major news outlets covered this story. It took the Internet by storm and caused a lot of fear among the public about the potential dangers of vaping.
There are some problems with this study. Dr. Konstantin Farsalinos shined a critical light on the study and discovered the many flaws that were present.
“This study is a result of severe personal frustration seeing the complete lack of understanding by several scientists on how e-cigarettes work and how they are used by consumers.” said Farsalinos in an article on e-cigarette-research.org.
The study fails to consider how people use e-cigarettes. The scientists that carried out the study essentially created a machine that would mimic the action of someone using a vaporizer. They connected the vaporizer to the machine, fired it up, and measured the chemicals in the vapor.
And, uh-oh, they found formaldehyde at the highest temperature they tested. The lower temperatures did not produce formaldehyde or any other carcinogenic substances.
What they failed to consider
What they failed to consider was that the temperatures they were using were too hot for anyone to inhale. Anyone that has used a vaporizer is familiar with the term “dry hit.” This occurs when a vape overheats or does not have enough e-liquid to produce a hit.
It is one of the worst sensations you will ever experience as a vape user. No one in their right mind would ever use their vape at these high temperatures, and yet, the study used temperatures in this dry hit range to search for chemicals.
Imagine this: a group of scientists wants to test whether steak is carcinogenic. They cook it so that it is burnt and charred to the point that no one in their right mind would consume it, and then test for carcinogens. They find carcinogens and report that cooked steak has carcinogens.
That is what happened here, but with vaporizers (steak flavored e-liquid anyone?)
So, let’s sum of this chain of information. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that was conducted in a way that it does not mimic the real life use of vaporizers. The study found formaldehyde when used at high temperatures no one could actually inhale. These results were used by the Surgeon General to conclude that secondhand vapor is unsafe. The CDC carried out a survey stating that people do not understand the harm potential of vaporizers and urged the public to become more aware. News outlets published stories that secondhand vapor poses a risk to the public.
Dr. Konstantin Farsalinos carried out a counter-study in the journal Addiction. He discovered that it was possible to get e-cigarettes to produce formaldehyde, but only at temperatures and settings that would be unbearable to anyone using a vaporizer.
One piece of highly debatable information lead to a massive outcry from the public and the media.
Professor Peter Hajek, director the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit said the following about Farsalinos’s study,
These findings emphasize the importance of making clear the conditions in which tests of this kind are undertaken and avoiding sweeping assertions that can mislead the public. Vapers are not exposed to dangerous levels of aldehydes. My reading of the evidence is that e-cigarettes are at least 95% safer than smoking.
Conclusions about the Effect of Secondhand Vapor
There does not appear to be any link between secondhand vapor inhalation and dangers to health.
This may leave you feeling a little confused. Why is there so much negative press surrounding secondhand vapor?
Many people fear that vaping could institute a “renormalization” of smoking in culture. There are a lot of people and organizations that believe if more people vape in public, it will become a normalized part of society as smoking once was, and if that happens, smoking will become normalized as it once was. All that is better addressed in another article.
Others also worry that there are not enough long term studies that have been done because vaporizers were only introduced in 2007. While this is true, it is easy to analyze the vapor and see what chemicals are present and compare that to the science behind air purity and the dangers of gaseous substances and come to the conclusion no risk is present.
Have you heard people exaggerating the impacts of secondhand vapor? Do you think there should be more public awareness about the fact that many scientific studies conclude that secondhand vapor poses no threat? What can we do about it?
Tell us your thoughts in the comments on our Facebook page. We’d love to hear your opinions!
FURTHER STUDIES AND EVIDENCE
Secondhand Exposure to Vapors From Electronic Cigarettes
“Using an e-cigarette in indoor environments may involuntarily expose nonusers to nicotine but not to toxic tobacco-specific combustion products.”
Peering through the mist: systematic review of what the chemistry of contaminants in electronic cigarettes tells us about health risks
“Current state of knowledge about the chemistry of liquids and aerosols associated with electronic cigarettes indicates that there is no evidence that vaping produces inhalable exposures to contaminants of the aerosol that would warrant health concerns by the standards that are used to ensure the safety of workplaces.”
Comparison of Select Analytes in Exhaled Aerosol from E-cigarettes with exhaled smoke from a conventional cigarette and exhaled breaths
“The findings of this work suggest that exhaled e-cigarette aerosol does not increase bystander exposure for phenolics and carbonyls above the levels observed in exhaled breaths of air, in contrast to the quantifiable levels of these analytes in exhaled conventional cigarette smoke.”
- “The levels of HPHCs in aerosol were consistent with the air blanks (<2 μg/puff).
- Mainstream cigarette smoke HPHCs (∼3000 μg/puff) was 1500 times higher than e-cigarette HPHCs.
- No significant contribution of tested HPHC classes was found for the e-cigarettes.