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Peering Through the Mist: Systematic Review of What the Chemistry of Contaminants in Electronic Cigarettes Tells Us About Health Risks


Peering Through the Mist: Systematic Review of What the Chemistry of Contaminants in Electronic Cigarettes Tells Us About Health Risks

Igor Burstyn. BMC Public Health.


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.


Figure 1
Figure 1
Illustrating the difference between concentrations in the aerosol generated by vaping and inhaled air in a day. Panel A shows a black square that represents aerosol contaminated by some compound as it would be measured by a “smoking machine” and extrapolated to dosage from vaping in one day. This black square is located inside the white square that represents total uncontaminated air that is inhaled in a day by a vaper. The relative sizes of the two squares are exaggerated as the volume of aerosol generated in vaping relative to inhaled air is much smaller than is illustrated in the figure. Panel B shows how exposure from contaminated air (black dots) is diluted over a day for appropriate comparison to occupational exposure limits that are expressed in terms of “time-weighted average” or average contamination over time rather than as instantaneous exposures. Exposure during vaping occurs in a dynamic process where the atmosphere inhaled by the vaper alternates between the smaller black and larger white squares in Panel A. Thus, the concentration of contaminants that a vaper is exposed to over a day is much smaller than that which is measured in the aerosol (and routinely improperly cited as reason for concern about “high” exposures).

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