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The e-cigarette debate: How vapes affect air quality and young people

The e-cigarette industry is growing at a rapid pace and it’s not just adults that are using them. Georgie Hughes investigates how the devices impact air quality and young people’s health 

In recent years you may have noticed the boom in e-cigarettes, as the product becomes increasingly popular in the UK. Whether you’re at the park, a gig or your local bar, there’s always a chance you’ll spot a cloud of vapour with a distinctly sweet aroma. In fact, results of an annual survey from Action on Smoking and Health revealed that more Brits than ever are vaping. Now 8.3% of adults are using the devices, the equivalent of 4.3 million people.  

time lapse photography of man sitting on ledge smoking during night time

We all know smoking can have a detrimental effect on the air – smoking in public places and workplaces was officially banned in the UK in 2007 for this very reason. What is not so common knowledge is whether vapes have the same effect. Researchers have been conducting analysis to find out.  

One such study examined the indoor air quality of a vaping convention in Maryland, where attendees varied from 75 to as many as 600 people indoors at one time. Investigators found a large increase in particulate matter, with a 24-hour time-weighted average of 1800 μg/m3, 12 times higher than US Environmental Protection Agency regulations. There was also an uptick in concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide and nicotine.  

‘So, it’s not a huge concentration, but it depends, right?’ says Ana María Rule, Assistant Professor in the Environmental Health and Engineering department at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who worked on the study. ‘If you have a room full of 50 people vaping, then those concentrations obviously are increased. So, for example, we were concerned that in high schools, middle schools, the kids were going to the bathrooms to vape. They were becoming these chambers with very bad ventilation, not just for kids who are vaping, but also those that come in just to use the bathroom.’  

Ms Rule continues: ‘What was the most concerning, in my opinion, was the nicotine. The nicotine concentrations were as high as smoke bars and cigar bars. Nicotine is a neurotoxic and you definitely don’t want to be exposed to nicotine so young.’ 

gray Eleaf iStick Pico

Rule’s concerns come as research by NHS Digital has revealed that vapingis increasing amongst secondary school children, with 9% of 11- to 15-year-olds using e-cigarettes in 2021, either regularly or occasionally. This has risen since 2018, when just 6% of pupils said they were vaping. Smoking amongst this age group is also at its lowest level ever recorded, with just 12% reporting having ever smoked, compared to 16% in 2018.   

Partly to blame for this, are the enticing colours and wide range of flavours vapes come in. Going into an e-cigarette vendor can hardly be distinguished from visiting a sweet shop, as you can choose from cotton candy, grape and even peanut butter flavour devices. While in the UK it’s illegal to sell e-cigarettes to under 18’s, many manage to avoid being ID’d or get their hands on illicit products. Rule believes newer vapes, which create thinner aerosols and less of a fragrance, also make it easier for young people to hide and sneak them indoors.  

Jon Foster, Policy Manager at charity Asthma + Lung UK, says the way vapes are advertised needs to be better controlled, to prevent more children from buying them: ‘It is concerning to see a rise in youth vaping and we want to see action to prevent the marketing of these products in ways that appeal to children, especially on social media. As proposed by the recent Khan Review of Tobacco Legislation, we would like to see cartoon characters or images appealing to young people banned and see no justification in their use. It seems clear that enforcement of the age of sale is also a problem, as no one under the age of 18 should be able to buy these products.’ 

When it comes to the health effects of these devices, US-based Ms Rule says not enough is known yet to make definitive claims: ‘What we do know is that all these things in the air are not good for you. And some of them, like the metals, even in low concentrations, should not be inhaled.’ Rule is currently working on a review paper investigating how e-cigarettes interfere with the immune system, as some components have been shown to have immunological effects. This could mean, for example, COVID sufferers who vape could have worse symptoms and a worse prognosis.  

The full version of this article appeared in November’s Air Quality News magazine. Read the issue below.

Images: Mika Baumeister (Top) / Sven Kucinic (Bottom) 

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