Are E-Cigarettes Dangerous?
Voters and legislators kicked cigarettes out of most bars and restaurants years ago. But now they’re back in a different form: Electronic cigarettes—smokeless cartridges that release nicotine vapors—are popping up in public places. Several cities and states—including North Dakota, New Jersey, and Utah—have explicitly banned their use indoors, but many haven’t. And while the dangers of secondhand smoke are well documented—and you know to keep your distance from smoke—how hazardous is the vapor from e-cigs? The short answer: No one knows for sure, but it's certainly safer than smoke from cigarettes, says John Spangler, M.D., a professor of family medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health. For one thing, smokers expose you both to their exhaled fumes and those from the lit end of their cigarettes. With vapor, you breathe in only what e-cigarette smokers breathe out. Since they’re relatively new to the scene and not yet regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, researchers have a lot to learn about their long-term effects on both users and bystanders, says Maciej Goniewicz, Pharm.D., Ph.D., at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. What’s more, e-cigarettes are moving targets, since manufacturers frequently change their formulas—and don’t yet have to disclose their exact ingredients. But what exactly are you breathing in when you stand next to an e-cig puffer? Here’s what your lungs can—at the very least—expect.
Nicotine—though only about one-tenth as much as secondhand tobacco smoke. Though it’s addictive, scientists have never linked nicotine itself to cancer and a small amount seems unlikely to pose risks to healthy adults, says Maher A. Karam-Hage, M.D., an addiction psychiatrist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The one exception: If you’ve recently quit smoking yourself, catching a whiff of nicotine could predispose you to slip back into the habit, he warns.
Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine. The liquid that users pour into e-cigarettes typically contains one or both of these ingredients. Propylene glycol is often used in fog machines, where it’s been known to irritate some people’s eyes and airways, says Tobias Schripp, Ph.D., a researcher at the Fraunhofer Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut in Germany. Vegetable glycerine sweetens foods and provides moisture to cosmetics. Though experts consider both compounds generally safe, researchers don’t yet know if years of inhaling them could harm an e-smoker or someone who lives with one, says Goniewicz.
Trace amounts of volatile carbonyl compounds, including known carcinogens acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. Goniewicz was surprised to find these toxins—abundant in tobacco smoke—in e-cig vapors too, since he didn’t see them in the liquid. But he suspects the heating coil inside e-cigarettes could cause a chemical reaction that produces small amounts.