Secondhand e-cigarette vapor may pose risk to children: study

28 March 2024

By Mary Walrath-Holdridge, USA Today

Researchers found that children in the study who were regularly around vaping had higher levels of metabolites, or substances, linked to chemicals found in e-cigarettes in their bodies

We all know that secondhand cigarette smoke is a bad thing − the dangers of tobacco smoke exposure to children specifically have long been known to causeailments from asthma attacks and infections to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

What we know less about, however, are the effects of prolonged exposure to electronic cigarette vapor. One set of researchers recently took to paving the way in hopes of eventually finding more answers.

A recent pilot study presented this month at the conference of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners found that secondhand “smoke,” or vapor from vaping and e-cigarettes may, in fact, impact the children in your life.

How researchers studied the effects of secondhand e-cigarette exposure

The study, conducted by researchers at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and Rollins School of Public Health, evaluated secondhand electronic cigarette exposure through multiple means in children aged 4 through 12.

The test group included 48 parent/child pairs, 22 of which included parents who vaped daily and 26 of which included parents who did not vape or smoke. Thirteen of the parents in the exposure group used both traditional and electric cigarettes.

Traditionally, blood tests are considered the standard for evaluating secondhand smoke impacts, but the team also used less invasive saliva testing and exhaled breath tests to determine what the children of vaping adults were exposed to. They then compared this to a control group of kids who were not regularly exposed to e-cigarette vapor.

Researchers found that children in the study who were regularly around vaping had higher levels of metabolites linked to chemicals found in e-cigarettes in their bodies. These can disrupt dopamine levels in the body, cause inflammation, and lead to cellular damage due to oxidative stress. This cellular damage is linked to numerous diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

“We identified several metabolites or substances that were significantly different between exposed and unexposed children,” Jeannie Rodriguez, associate professor at Emory’s School of Nursing and lead author of the study, told USA TODAY. “Some of these substances are likely associated with the chemicals found in the e-liquid that the parent heats, inhales, and then exhales. Others that we found are associated with the creation and breakdown of dopamine, cell-damaging processes, and inflammation.”

She said the study was exploratory and a preliminary setup for further research, meaning data was not collected on the actual occurrence or likelihood of any such conditions. However, its findings do set up a pathway for future studies that may explore and address these risks more specifically.

Not a harmless cigarette alternative

With laws and regulations around traditional tobacco products becoming stricter, electronic cigarettes became more popular in the 2000s. Manufacturers have been criticized for marketing toward a younger audience, leading to legislation that bans flavors considered attractive to kids, and to people who are trying to quit smoking or looking for a “less harmful” way to consume tobacco.

E-cigarettes as we know them now were widely introduced to the U.S. in 2007. By 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed that it did not consider electronic cigarettes a legitimate smoking cessation aid and demanded that manufacturers remove these claims from marketing materials at the time. By 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would regulate e-cigarettes like traditional cigarettes and tobacco products under the Food Drug and Cosmetics Act. Controversy and changing legislature around these topics have persisted.

“Many people who smoke have switched to using e-cigarettes, thinking it’s safer for them and others nearby,” Rodriguez said in a statement published by the college. “However, there are chemicals in the liquids used in a vape that are hazardous for you and those that you care about who are exposed to the vapors you exhale.”

Parents largely unaware that vaping causes secondhand exposure

After the study, a focus group of parents was informed of the findings. Many seemed surprised to hear just how harmful vaping around their children could be, according to researchers.

Of the parents who were vape users, more than half (11 of 19) shared that they thought vaping around their kids was a “minor health hazard or not a health hazard at all.” Additionally, 12 of 22 parents who used these products said they did not know if exposure to electronic cigarette vapors was harmful to children, according to the research presentation.

Multiple parents shared that they had turned to vaping as a tool to lessen or stop the use of cigarettes, and more expressed a belief that vaping was overall healthier and safer than traditional tobacco use.

“The appeal for vaping is that, at least in my mind and I say this all the time to people that ask me, I say, vaping for me is probably about 95% better than smoking cigarettes,” said one parent quoted in the findings. “For me, it seems it portrays itself as the healthier version,” said another.

Others said that they believed their bodies felt better while vaping, leading them to think it was better overall, while others said that the simple power of addiction was what kept them turning to e-cigarettes.

There is not yet a consensus on secondhand electronic cigarette vapor exposure and its effects, as research in the area remains limited. In the meantime, however, Rodriguez said it’s still worth exercising caution when vaping around your kids.

“With the increase in vaping, it is important for us to understand any health effects secondhand exposure may have, particularly on children,” she said. “If parents are concerned about any potential health effects from secondhand vape exposure for their children, they should consult with their child’s pediatric health care provider and consider limiting the exposure until more is known.”

Clarification: This story was updated to remove references to misconceptions about e-cigarettes that were not referenced in the study.