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Is secondhand smoke from e-cigarettes harmless?

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Currently, in California and the rest of the US, cigarette smoking is banned in many public areas. E-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine but not many other ingredients of tobacco are not banned. E-cigarettes generate inhalable nicotine aerosol (vapor). When an e-cigarette user takes a puff, the nicotine solution is heated and the vapor is taken into lungs. Some of this vapor is exhaled by the e-cigarette user; thus, it can be inhaled by individuals in the vicinity. Researcher at Roswell Park Cancer Institute (Buffalo, NY) and Polish colleagues conducted a study to access secondhand exposure to nicotine and other tobacco-related toxicants from e-cigarettes. The results were published online in December 2013 in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

The investigators measured airborne markers of secondhand exposure: nicotine, aerosol particles (PM2.5), carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in an exposure chamber. Using a smoking machine and controlled exposure conditions, they generated e-cigarette vapor from three different brands of e-cigarettes. They also compared secondhand exposure with e-cigarette vapor and tobacco smoke generated by five individuals who smoked both regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

The researchers found that e-cigarettes are a source of secondhand exposure to nicotine but not to combustion toxicants. The air concentrations of nicotine emitted by the three brands of e-cigarettes ranged from 0.82 to 6.23 µg/m3. However, the average concentration of nicotine resulting from smoking tobacco cigarettes was 10 times higher than from e-cigarettes.

The authors concluded that smoking e-cigarettes in indoor environments may involuntarily expose nonusers to nicotine but not to toxic tobacco-specific combustion products. They recommended that further research should be conducted to evaluate the health consequences of secondhand exposure to nicotine, particularly among vulnerable populations, such as children, pregnant women, and individuals with cardiovascular conditions.

The California Assembly is currently considering a bill that would ban the use of e-cigarettes and similar smokeless vaporizers in areas where tobacco smoking is banned. Senate Bill 648 would place vaporizers under the same restrictions as tobacco cigarettes, banning their use in public buildings, restaurants, workplaces, hotel lobbies, playgrounds, within 20 feet of exit doors. Last August, a hearing on Senate Bill 648 before the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization was canceled just one hour before it was set to begin. A hearing could occur as early as January 2014; thus, individuals who wish to express their viewpoint on this matter can contact their senator via this link.