Electronic cigarettes have largely been touted as a safer alternative to the real thing, but recent findings believe otherwise. Secondhand cigarette smoke has been well-understood for years, but science is still in the process of understanding how inhaling secondhand vapor affects the body.
According to Dr. Talat Islam, an assistant professor of research population and public health science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, people may be understimating the health risk. He and his research colleagues have found that exposure is associated with increased risk of bronchitis symptoms and shortness of breath among young adults, especially around those who don’t smoke or vape.
“Aerosols from vaping contain heavy metals and ultrafine particles,” said Islam. “If somebody else is vaping in the same area, you’re breathing it – those particles are entering your lungs, where they can do damage.”
Apart from nicotine, the aerosols include heavy metals that have been linked with a condition nicknamed “popcorn lung” in people who vape.
A study in New York last year in the Tobacco Control journal found that the use of e-cigarettes increased the number of fine particles in the surrounding room. Exposure to fine particles can worsen heart and lung disease, possibly leading to premature death.
E-cigarettes were commonly used among middle and high school students last year, according to government research. While 1 in 4 students between 2015 to 2017 were exposed to secondhand e-cigarette aerosols, the figure grew to 1 in 3 students in 2018, stated a 2019 study in JAMA Network Open.
“There’s a perception as a whole that vaping is not as harmful as smoking,” noted Islam. “I think that’s why we see such high levels of secondhand exposure.”
Dr. Ellen Boakye, a postdoctoral research fellow at the John Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Baltimore, believes that by the time the health impacts are fully understood, it may be too late.
“When people started smoking, the health effects were not known until years later, and that’s the same thing we’re seeing with e-cigarettes,” said Boakye. “There is evidence to suggest that e-cigarette use is associated with respiratory conditions and cardiovascular disease. As more evidence becomes available, we may see that this association is causal, both for e-cigarette use and for exposure to secondhand vapor.”
Boakye urges people to minimize their exposure to vaping and for those who vape to quit, noting that more funding is needed for vaping cessation programs.