Anyone who has followed the news over the course of the last several years has certainly noticed the steady drumbeat of dire warnings about the dangers of the liquids used in electronic cigarettes. Even notable publications like the New York Times have gotten into the act, going so far as to refer to them as “poison” in an article back in 2014. Unfortunately, much of what has been written and said about liquid nicotine is framed in ways that avoid answering the real fundamental question at issue in this debate: is e-liquid really dangerous? As we will see, the answer to that question depends on who you believe, and from what vantage point you are viewing the issue.
First of all, most claims about the dangers associated with liquid nicotine center on three serious risks: their availability to children, their use by people who might otherwise never start smoking, and exposure to toxic levels of nicotine through either consumption or skin absorption. In addition to those concerns, there have also been dire warnings about the danger that overheated liquid nicotine can produce carcinogens like formaldehyde. To understand these risks, it is helpful to examine them separately.
With respect to children having access to liquid nicotine – or any electronic cigarette product, for that matter – there is little argument from e-cig proponents. Indeed, both sides seem to be in agreement that these products are not designed to be used by minors, and attempts to prevent children from accessing them have enjoyed broad support. Naturally, small children are more likely to be harmed by e-liquid, since they would be more likely to handle the substance in a careless manner.
In contrast, the notion that people who might otherwise have never taken up smoking are more likely to be attracted to the habit if electronic cigarettes remain an option seems to be a less valid concern. In one study of some 900-plus young people, the researchers discovered that 98% of those who use electronic cigarettes had previously used tobacco products. Only 2% had started with electronic cigarettes and then taken up smoking. So much for the gateway argument…
Toxic exposure to e-liquid is another matter entirely. There is research that indicates that exposure to liquid nicotine– either though oral consumption or skin absorption – and even vaping proponents acknowledge those risks. When such exposure occurs, absorption happens fairly quickly even when the concentration of nicotine is heavily diluted. Such ingestion can cause everything from seizures to vomiting, and can even be fatal at higher doses.
To counter those concerns, many suggest that e-liquids be sold only in child-proof containers, provide warning labels about safe handling, and follow safety protocols for packaging. At present, there are already many companies that provide those safety features, and the industry appears to be adopting an even more responsible attitude toward these concerns with each passing year.
And then there is the issue of carcinogens. Researchers who have studied this concern have concluded that formaldehyde and other dangerous compounds can be created when e-liquid is superheated. In their research, they discovered that formaldehyde is often produced when Propylene Glycol (PG) and Vegetable Glycerine (VG) are heated beyond safe limits. These two liquids are the base that is used to help deliver nicotine to the person using the electronic device. It is worth noting that PG is also used in many nebulizers, and has never been a cause for this type of concern in its medical capacity. Nevertheless, outside observers have cited this risk as one more reason to be concerned about e-cigs.
There are two things that seem to be constant in most of these concerns: physical exposure to the actual liquid nicotine, and possible conversion of the liquid into toxic substances during the heating process. Both are legitimate concerns, and a reason for exercising caution when using these products. In addition, even the best e-cig products – including liquid nicotine – should never be left where children might access them. However, a respectful consumer approach to handling these liquids can mitigate virtually all exposure concerns, and toxic compounds can be prevented from forming by avoiding the excessive temperatures that can create them.
One thing seems certain: despite the potential risks identified by e-cigarette opponents and those who seek broader regulation of the industry, these products remain far safer than their tobacco counterparts. Many former smokers have successfully used electronic cigarettes to end their smoking habits, and many more have enjoyed improved lung capacity and other positive benefits just from switching to these smoke-free options. And while opponents argue that such anecdotal reports are not scientific evidence, the fact is that those millions of e-cig users are unlikely to all be wrong about their own improved health.
In short, there are some potential risks that must be respected by those who use electronic cigarettes. E-liquid containing nicotine is, after all, still a nicotine product, and thus carries with it the potential hazards that attach to that substance. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say that responsible users who treat these products with the respect they deserve should find that e-liquid is far less dangerous than tobacco and many other products on the market today.