Allergies, Clean Air

What’s Worse: E-Cig Vapors or Tobacco Smoke?


Any substance released into the air can have adverse effects on human health. Emissions from cigarette tobacco are especially serious, both because it causes disease in the smoker, but it can life threatening consequences to the people who are exposed to the exhaled smoke and smoke from the lighted end of the tobacco device.

When it comes to indoor air quality, emissions from burning substance such as tobacco, wood, or even when cooking at the stove are considered one of the biggest threats to human health. According to the World Health Organization, around 4.3 million people die each year from exposure to household air pollution. These deaths are largely the result of inhaling fine particles, volatile organic chemicals and carbon monoxide, which are found in smoke produced by tobacco cigarettes, solid fuels and wood.

But what about vapors from electronic cigarettes? In August 2016 the Food and Drug Administration issued new guidelines to regulate electronic cigarette sales like tobacco. After years of selling electronic cigarette products without restrictions, companies were no longer be able to sell to minors and could no longer claim their devices are safer than cigarettes.

We know that smoke from tobacco is dangerous, but are vapors from electronic cigarettes anywhere near as bad for our health?

Are Electronic Cigarette Vapors Safe?

Electronic cigarettes are available with different parts and components depending on how you want to “vape,” but the basic function of the devices is to vaporize flavored liquids so they can be inhaled.

While not legally defined as “smoking,” people are still heating a material (flavored liquid) and inhaling them, then exhaling and blowing vapors that have an appearance of smoke. Besides the user, people in the surrounding area may be inhaling these vapors.

So what are in these vapors and do they pose a health risk?

Electronic cigarettes normally contain metal, a battery that contains lithium, and a liquid made from propylene glycol, glycerin, flavoring, and some amount of nicotine. A recent study looked at these components and assessed their risk.

Of note, “trivial amounts of mercury and traces of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde” were found in the vapors produced by burning the liquid. Based on the toxicant emission score, electronic cigarettes scored a zero, which compared to 134 for tobacco cigarettes. In testing for volatile organic carbons, only trace levels of toluene were found at 120 times lower than cigarettes.

Due to the presence of metal in the device, nickel, cadmium and lead were found in vapors, but researchers defended these findings:

… it is not unusual to find trace levels of metals in the vapor generated by these products under experimental conditions that bear little relevance to their normal use; however, it is unlikely that such small amounts pose a serious threat to users’ health.

Continuing the trend of finding fewer potentially harmful compounds in electronic cigarette smoke, researchers established that “the number of microparticles estimated to be inhaled by EC users from 10 puffs were 880 times lower compared with one tobacco cigarette.”

The study concludes:

… chemical studies have found that exposure to toxic chemicals from ECs is far lower compared with tobacco cigarettes. Besides comparing the levels of specific chemicals released from tobacco and ECs, it should be taken into consideration that the vast majority of the >4000 chemicals present in tobacco smoke are completely absent from ECs.

While that is reassuring, these studies looked at a small group of electronic cigarette devices and liquids. Given the popularity of these devices among younger people, and those who use them to quit smoking, transparency and future research might be needed, as the researchers state:

Obviously, surveillance of use is warranted in order to objectively evaluate the in vivo effects and because the effects of inhaling flavoring substances approved for food use are largely unknown.

As more research is conducted and the health of electronic cigarette smokers is evaluated, there will be more conclusive evidence for or against the use of these products.

What Makes Cigarette Tobacco Smoke Dangerous?

In 2004, 50 years after the first report on smoking, the Surgeon General released a report titled, The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General.

Analysis of the report found that “the evidence is sufficient to infer a causal relationship between smoking and cancers of the lung, larynx, oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, pancreas, bladder, kidney, cervix, and stomach, and acute myeloid leukemia.”

Why does cigarette smoke cause these diseases? In part, it is because of chemicals and additives found in cigarettes. These same chemicals are present in secondhand smoke. Chemicals in secondhand smoke that can cause harmful health effects may include:

  • Benzene
  • Acetamide
  • Nitrobenzene
  • Arsenic
  • Lead
  • Formaldehyde
  • Acetaldehyde
  • Ammonia
  • Cyanide
  • … and more

Even if two people don’t share the same space, the non-smoker can be affected by the smoker. Researchers who analyzed the Surgeon General report also note:

When people are exposed to secondhand smoke in indoor environments, the concentrations to which they are exposed depend not only on the number of cigarettes smoked, which determines the strength of the source, but on how air moves through buildings and at what rate indoor air is exchanged with outdoor air.

According to the American Lung Association, secondhand is responsible for:

  • Around 7,000 deaths from lung cancer; 34,000 from heart disease
  • Costs the economy $5.6 billion due to lost productivity
  • Up to 300,00 lower respiratory tract infections in children under 18 months of age; up 15,000 hospitalizations; and causes 430 sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) deaths each year
  • 790,000 doctor’s office visits per year and more than 202,000 asthma flare-ups among children
  • Exposing 37 percent of children to secondhand smoke at some point in their life

Local, state and federal governments are responsible for setting laws related to smoking. Laws can vary, but more information can be found at Tobacco Policy Project/State Legislated Actions on Tobacco Issues (SLATI) for more information about laws in your area.

Indoor Air Quality and Smoke

Air filters can not prevent secondhand smoke from cigarette or electronic cigarette. Air filters can reduce airborne particles produced by burning tobacco, but only once those particles reach the filter material. If someone is smoking indoors, those in the immediate area will not benefit from an air filter, and even those in other areas of the home can still be exposed to unfiltered air.

The best way to deal with indoor secondhand smoke is to eliminate it entirely from inside the home. If a smoker is present in the home, proper ventilation (bringing fresh air inside to replace contaminated air) and air filters may help reduce harmful particles, but aren’t a guarantee that people in the home won’t suffer health consequences as a result of exposure.

Tobacco Cigarettes or Electronic Cigarettes?

Based on the research availabile, vapors produced by electornic cigarettes appear to contain fewer chemicals, particles or other substances that are known to cause adverse health effects.

When it comes to indoor air quality, the right answer is neither. We spend up to 90% of our time indoors, so it makes sense to expose ourselves to as much fresh, filtered air as possible.

Read our blog on the 7 Ways to Keep Indoor Air Fresh to learn more and start breathing fresher, more healthy air today!

What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments below!

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