electronic cigarette
A man uses an e-cigarette, an electronic substitute in the form of a rod, which is slightly longer than a normal cigarette. Reuters

E-cigarettes aren’t just an affectation of cyberpunky hipsters -- they’re a breath of not-quite-fresh air to smokers tired of being exiled to the hinterlands when they need a puff. Because an e-cigarette user exhales water vapor instead of smoke, it’s easier to justify bringing them back into bars and workplaces.

On its face, the e-cigarette seems like a safer option: Instead of burning a tobacco mixture, the devices uses a heating element to warm up a liquid solution containing nicotine. Instead of exhaling a cloud of smoke, the e-cig smoker exhales mostly water vapor. But do e-cigarettes pose any secondhand dangers to bystanders? A new study, one of the first to look at the issue of secondhand e-cigarette vapor, finds that while you might get a whiff of nicotine from being close to someone puffing on an e-cig, you probably won’t be sniffing much else.

“We were interested whether people who are in close proximity of users of electronic cigarettes can be exposed to any [toxic substances] or nicotine,” study author Maciej Goniewicz, a researcher at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., said in a phone interview.

For their study, published on Thursday in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research, Goniewicz and colleagues looked at three different kinds of e-cigarettes popular in Poland. They conducted several experiments using smoking machines and human volunteers to puff automatically on e-cigarettes or conventional ones. The scientists collected the resulting vapors or smoke and analyzed the samples.

They found that both e-cigarette vapor and regular cigarette smoke contained nicotine, but the average concentration in e-cigarette vapor was about 10 times lower, on average, than the amount found in the tobacco smoke. But the e-cigarette vapor did not contain some of the other toxic products found in cigarette smoke.

“The key finding of this study is that e-cigarettes emit significant amounts of nicotine but do not emit significant amounts of [carbon monoxide] and [volatile organic compounds],” the authors wrote.

Goniewicz notes that their study is limited -- they were only looking for a few of the chemicals found in cigarette smoke, which contains more than 5,000 elements. Future studies will be needed to look for other potentially dangerous components like formaldehyde. And, of course, there’s the question of what the long-term effects of secondhand nicotine vapor might be.

“We don’t know how to answer this question yet,” Goniewicz says. “Before, we never had a device that released just pure nicotine to the air.”

While we do know that smokers aren’t getting cancer from nicotine by itself, Goniewicz says, there may be some subpopulations -- pregnant mothers, people that already have cancer -- where nicotine exposure could potentially do some harm. And occasional exposure to e-cigarette vapors at a bar or a restaurant is a much different situation than living with a constant user.

“When we compare electronic cigarettes with tobacco cigarettes, we see potential benefits, but cannot say for sure,” Goniewicz says.

The study was supported by Poland’s ministry of science. Goniewicz has received funding from Pfizer and the U.K. Center for Tobacco Control Studies, and his co-author Andrzej Sobczak received travel and research funds from Chic Group Ltd., a Polish electronic cigarettes maker.

SOURCE: Czogala et al. “Secondhand Exposure to Vapors From Electronic Cigarettes.” Nicotine and Tobacco Research published 11 December 2013.