When vaping first gained popularity, it was marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes. However, a recent surge in illnesses, hospitalizations -- and even deaths -- has shown that there may be much scarier health risks associated with e-cigarettes than we thought. Products like Juul are wildly addictive and popular among teens, leading to what some are calling an epidemic of nicotine use.
Lately, researchers have been discovering that it's not only those who use vaping products themselves who are harmed -- other people in the vicinity can be breathing in "secondhand" fumes, a phenomenon now dubbed "secondhand vaping."
What is secondhand vaping?
Secondhand vaping is exactly what it sounds like: if you're near a person breathing out vapor from an e-cigarette, you generally breathe in the same air that they're exhaling and can inhale the same vapor.
And you don't have to be in super confined quarters with the vaper to still experience the negative side effects. A study from 2014 showed that indoor air quality was impaired when people in a ventilated room used e-cigarettes. Ultrafine particles can find their way from the vapor into the lungs of other people in the same space.
Another study from 2018 found that the vapor not only contains nicotine, but also heavy metals, aldehyde and glycerin, even though vaporizer companies try to paint these products as healthier in every way.
These chemicals contribute to the health risk posed by secondhand vaping. Both of these studies concluded that the pollutants emitted by vapor and the chemicals it contains can harm passive bystanders, including increased frequency of asthmatic reactions in bystanders. The vapor can also harm bystanders' lungs and contribute to lasting damage and disease.
Who is most at risk?
With more teens than ever now vaping, it seems like the younger folks who are more at risk. A third of high-schoolers and middle-schoolers reported that they were exposed to vaping aerosol in 2018. The Surgeon General reported last year that e-cigarette use among young people qualifies as an epidemic. Plus, for deceptive marketing tactics designed to promote their products to minors.
Teenagers are typically much more impressionable to peer pressure than their older counterparts, so it's harder for many of them to remove themselves from social situations that pose a health risk. Personally, I was already so embarrassed by just being in middle school that I can't imagine speaking up if I saw someone using an e-cigarette.
Those with pre-existing lung or breathing conditions are also at a greater risk: If you have asthma or a related condition, the effects of secondhand vaping may be heightened. The aerosol in vapor can cause throat and respiratory irritation, so if you're already feeling a little sick or have a sore throat, you could feel much worse.
How to avoid it
Fine, I'll be the buzzkill here. If you really want to avoid the negative health effects of secondhand vaping, you may just want to not hang out with your friends while they're using e-cigarettes. Or, if you're reading this and you are an e-cigarette user who's not ready to give it up yet, at least don't vape around other people (especially kids).
Besides avoiding vapers while they partake, you can set ground rules for your own personal spaces. Tell people you would rather they not vape in your car, home or anywhere else that you have some sway.
If someone close to you, like a parent, caretaker or coworker, uses e-cigarettes, you can kindly ask them to stop while you're around. Frame it as a way to protect both your health and theirs, and hopefully they'll respect your wishes.
Correction, September 13, 2:18 p.m. PT: This article misrepresented metal levels in e-cigarettes. The incorrect statement has been deleted.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.