Available in an enticing array of flavors, electronic cigarettes have exploded in popularity since they hit the market about 15 years ago, particularly among middle and high school students. But research indicates that electronic cigarettes – even just being around their use – may not be as “safe” as some people believe.
The dangers of secondhand vapor
While the dangers of breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke are well-understood, the science is still unfolding on how inhaling secondhand vapor, or aerosol, affects the body. And people may be underestimating the health risk, says Dr. Talat Islam, an assistant professor of research population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Islam and his research colleagues have found that exposure to secondhand aerosols from e-cigarettes is associated with an increased risk of bronchitis symptoms and shortness of breath among young adults, especially among those who don’t smoke or vape themselves, the team reported last year in the journal Thorax.
“Aerosols from vaping contain heavy metals and ultrafine particles,” Islam shares. “If somebody else is vaping in the same area, you’re breathing it – those particles are entering your lungs, where they can do damage.”
In addition to nicotine, the aerosols include heavy metals such as lead, nickel and zinc, and cancer-causing substances such as benzene, and diacetyl, which has been linked with a condition nicknamed “popcorn lung” in people who vape.
A 2021 study in New York, published in the journal Tobacco Control, found that the use of e-cigarettes increased the number of fine particles in the surrounding room. Exposure to fine particles, or microscopic particles capable of reaching deep into the lungs, can worsen heart and lung disease, and even lead to premature death.
Earlier studies have also linked electronic cigarettes to other health issues, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and depression.
E-cigarettes were the most commonly used tobacco product among U.S. middle and high school students in 2021, government research shows. And while about 1 in 4 students between 2015 and 2017 were exposed to secondhand e-cigarette aerosols, that figure grew to 1 in 3 students in 2018, according to a 2019 study in JAMA Network Open.