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Secondhand Vape Exposure (Passive Vaping): Harms and Health Risks

Published 21 September 2023, Updated 10 April 2024

Secondhand Vape Exposure (Passive Vaping): Harms and Health Risks

Secondhand vape exposure, or passive vaping, is the inhalation of e-cigarette vapour by persons other than the active vaper. Second hand vaping occurs when vaping aerosols diffuse into the surrounding atmosphere, which leads to their inhalation by bystanders within the same environment.

Secondhand exposure to vapour from electronic cigarettes is not the same as secondhand smoke exposure from cigarettes. According to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the majority of harmful substances present in tobacco smoke are absent in e-cigarette vapour, and any that do occur are found at much lower levels, mostly below 1%.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights the health risks associated with the harmful chemicals in secondhand cigarette smoke, including stroke, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and reproductive health issues for pregnant people. However, the health risks associated with secondhand vapour are not as clearly understood as those related to passive inhalation of smoke from conventional cigarettes.

Studies identify secondhand nicotine vaping as the most concerning aspect of passive vaping. Electronic nicotine delivery systems vapourise the substance into ultrafine particles that increase the risk of bronchitic symptoms when inhaled by bystanders via secondhand vape exposure. According to Public Health England and the National Health Service, the risk of any serious health problems from passive exposure to vape aerosol is negligible.

What is Secondhand Vape Exposure?

The American Thoracic Society defines secondhand vaping as the inhalation of vaping aerosols that come from an electronic cigarette and third-hand vape exposure as contact with surfaces that vapour particulates stick to, such as carpets, walls, furniture, clothing, hair and toys.

Dr. Talat Islam, Assistant Professor of Research Population and Public Health Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, says that the main concern of secondhand vape exposure is the unintended inhalation of nicotine, which increases the risk of bronchitic symptoms (bronchitis, cough or phlegm).

The results of a 2022 study authored by Dr. Islam and published in the BMJ Thorax journal, revealed that secondhand vape exposure to nicotine was associated with an increased risk of bronchitic symptoms and shortness of breath among young adults, with 811 of the 2090 participants (38.8%) reporting bronchitic symptoms over the course of the study.

Dr. Islam notes that further study is needed to establish a causal association between secondhand vape exposure to nicotine and respiratory symptoms.

Is Passive Vaping the Same as Passive Smoking?

No, experts agree that passive vaping is not the same as passive smoking because e-cigarettes do not produce smoke, which is the primary cause of adverse health effects from passive smoking, such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and reproductive health problems in pregnant people.

Dr. Jan Czogala from the Medical University of Silesia, the largest medical school in Poland, published a study in the Nicotine & Tobacco Research (N&TR) journal, which found that using an e-cigarette in indoor environments may involuntarily expose nonusers to nicotine but not to toxic tobacco-specific combustion products.

In a website post entitled “Is vaping harmful?”, Cancer Research UK, who last reviewed the content on 27 March 2023, states that passive vaping is not the same as passive smoking because e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco.

Is Second Hand Vape Smoke Harmful?

Maybe. The American Thoracic Society states that vaping aerosols contain toxic chemicals that can be breathed in by others. Conversely, Cancer Research UK states that second-hand vapour is unlikely to be harmful and that, as of 27 March 2023, there is “no good evidence” that second-hand vapour from e-cigs is harmful.

Can You Get Nicotine from Passive Vaping?

Yes, you can get nicotine from passive vaping (secondhand vape exposure), but the amount is negligible. According to the National Health Service (NHS), e-cigs release negligible amounts of nicotine into the atmosphere, and the risk for bystanders is small compared to tobacco cigarettes.

Is Passive Vaping Bad for Asthma?

Passive vaping (inhaling secondhand vapour) heightens the risk of airway irritation for people with asthma. There is limited scientific evidence on asthma triggers from passive, but the charity Asthma and Lung UK notes that some people with asthma report that vapour from e-cigarettes triggers their symptoms.

Can Passive Vaping Cause Sore Throat?

Passive vaping heightens the risk of throat irritation, which can lead to a sore throat. While a Sore Throat From Vaping is a well-evidenced side effect for active e-cigarette users, little scientific evidence is available on the association between a sore throat and exposure to secondhand vapour.

Is Passive Vaping Bad for Pregnancy?

Yes, passive vaping is bad for pregnancy because it heightens the risk of causing serious harm to your unborn child, as nicotine exposure from vapour increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, and developmental issues. Doctors recommend avoiding second-hand vape exposure during gestation.

Dr. Elizabeth Rogers, Associate Clinical Director at Bupa Health Clinics, says that while evidence on the harm to unborn babies from secondhand vape exposure is lacking, there is no evidence to confirm that secondhand vape exposure is safe during pregnancy either. Dr Rogers recommends abstinence from all forms of nicotine during pregnancy, given the potential risks to the fetus.

Is It Safe to Vape Around Babies?

No, it is not safe to vape around babies. Experts agree that vaping around babies or kids is unsafe because of the heightened risk of exposure to toxic chemicals in e-cigarettes, such as nicotine. Vaping around babies increases the risk of accidental consumption, as children may mistake vapes and e-liquids for toys.

John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital advises parents to keep e-cigarettes or vaping devices locked away at home to avoid accidental consumption by infants. John Hopkins recommends calling your local poison centre if you think your child has been exposed to e-cigarettes via second-hand vapour or liquid nicotine.

Is It Safe to Vape Around Dogs?

No, it is not safe to vape around dogs because dogs are likely to chew nicotine-containing e-liquid bottles and e-cigarettes, increasing the risk of nicotine poisoning. Long-term side effects are rare for pets that have consumed nicotine, but veterinarians agree that avoiding vaping around dogs and other pets is best.

Dr. Charlotte Flint, Senior Consulting Veterinarian, Clinical Toxicology for Pet Poison Helpline, says that dogs that have consumed nicotine can seem depressed, have a low heart rate or blood pressure and are likely to vomit. If your dog has accidentally ingested liquid nicotine and experiences any of these symptoms or appears to be agitated, drool or have diarrhoea, you should call your local pet helpline service, says Dr Flint.

Is Vaping Indoors Safe?

Vaping Indoors may impact the health of those around you, although scientific studies are yet to definitively confirm this. Further research is needed to confirm the effects of secondhand vape exposure on others in the same environment while vaping indoors. Until then, it is best to exercise caution and only vape indoors when you are alone.

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