Can I be Affected by Secondhand Vape Smoke?

Vape pens and e-cigarettes have become a common sight in the last five to 10 years. We see them used at stores, bars and big events and assume they must be healthier than actual cigarettes. We assume the person smoking the vape pen or e-cigarette assumes that, too.  

But not only is the person you see inhaling those electronic smoking devices (ESDs) jeopardizing their health, they could be jeopardizing yours as well through secondhand vape smoke.   

Just because you aren’t inhaling that unmistakable cigarette odor doesn’t mean your body is free of the toxins ESDs release. Secondhand aerosol from ESDs contains nicotine, ultrafine particles and various other toxins that have been linked to pneumonia and collapsed lungs –among other conditions – according to doctors with Johns Hopkins Medicine 

What kind of health risks could secondhand vape smoke pose?  

The aforementioned ultrafine particles in vape aerosol have been found to contain particle concentration that is actually higher than those in conventional tobacco cigarette smoke, according to a 2014 scientific study on environmental pollution 

“Exposure to secondhand vaping aerosol should be avoided,” said Dr. S. George Kipa, MD, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, during a 2020 podcast. “There’s evidence that nonsmokers exposed to secondhand vape aerosol absorb similar levels of nicotine as people exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke.”  

An Oxford Journal study on nicotine and tobacco research found that e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes generated similar elevated the serum cotinine levels of study subjects.  Serum cotinine levels reflect exposure to nicotine in tobacco smoke. Typically, if you don’t smoke and aren’t exposed to secondhand smoke very often are generally very low. 

“Along with nicotine, non-vapers are also exposed to ultrafine particles from secondhand vape aerosol, which may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Kipa added, during the podcast. “Secondhand vape aerosol also contains several known carcinogens that may increase the risk of certain cancers.”  

Short term exposure to the chemicals in vape aerosol can cause irritation to your upper airways, your eyes, and your throat. More research is needed to determine the long-term damage caused by secondhand exposure to ESDs. However, one study linked consistent exposure to propylene glycol with asthma development in children. Propylene glycol is one of the primary chemicals found in vape aerosol.  

There isn’t nearly as much scientific evidence condemning secondhand vape smoke as there is secondhand cigarette smoke, but there is enough to support the notion of ducking and dodging a nearby ESD smoker the same way you would avoid someone blowing cigarette smoke.  

If you know someone who vapes that might be interested in kicking the habit, you should suggest they set up an appointment with their primary care provider to devise a personalized quitting plan.  

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan offers a 12-week tobacco coaching program to members with PPO or HMO coverage. This coaching extends to users of electronic cigarettes and vaping products.  

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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