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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Peering through the mist: systematic review of what the chemistry of contaminants in electronic cigarettes tells us about health risks

Igor Burstyn

Author Affiliations

Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, School of Public Health, Drexel University, Nesbitt Hall, 3215 Market St. Floor 6, Office 614, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

BMC Public Health 2014, 14:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-18

Published: 9 January 2014

Abstract

Background

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are generally recognized as a safer alternative to combusted tobacco products, but there are conflicting claims about the degree to which these products warrant concern for the health of the vapers (e-cigarette users). This paper reviews available data on chemistry of aerosols and liquids of electronic cigarettes and compares modeled exposure of vapers with occupational safety standards.

Methods

Both peer-reviewed and “grey” literature were accessed and more than 9,000 observations of highly variable quality were extracted. Comparisons to the most universally recognized workplace exposure standards, Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), were conducted under “worst case” assumptions about both chemical content of aerosol and liquids as well as behavior of vapers.

Results

There was no evidence of potential for exposures of e-cigarette users to contaminants that are associated with risk to health at a level that would warrant attention if it were an involuntary workplace exposures. The vast majority of predicted exposures are < <1% of TLV. Predicted exposures to acrolein and formaldehyde are typically <5% TLV. Considering exposure to the aerosol as a mixture of contaminants did not indicate that exceeding half of TLV for mixtures was plausible. Only exposures to the declared major ingredients -- propylene glycol and glycerin -- warrant attention because of precautionary nature of TLVs for exposures to hydrocarbons with no established toxicity.

Conclusions

Current state of knowledge about chemistry of liquids and aerosols associated with electronic cigarettes indicates that there is no evidence that vaping produces inhalable exposures to contaminants of the aerosol that would warrant health concerns by the standards that are used to ensure safety of workplaces. However, the aerosol generated during vaping as a whole (contaminants plus declared ingredients) creates personal exposures that would justify surveillance of health among exposed persons in conjunction with investigation of means to keep any adverse health effects as low as reasonably achievable. Exposures of bystanders are likely to be orders of magnitude less, and thus pose no apparent concern.

Keywords:
Vaping; e-cigarettes; Tobacco harm reduction; Risk assessment; Aerosol; Occupational exposure limit