Scientists from the Spanish Council of Scientific Research came up with some pretty interesting results after measuring the levels of several volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in indoor air, normal exhaled breath, smoke of tobacco cigarettes, exhaled breath of smokers after taking cigarette puffs, e-cigarette aerosol and exhaled breath of vapers after taking e-cigarette puffs.
The issue of second-hand vapor and the exposure of bystanders to volatile organic compounds has been brought up by e-cigarette opponents on numerous occasions, but the results of this new study should put their mainly unfounded worries to rest. First of all, despite their ominous-sounding name, VOCs are not all as bad as you’d think. By definition, they are chemicals that boil at less than 250°C and contain carbon. As you can imagine, the list of volatile organic compounds is pretty long, and while it contains some nasty chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde, it also includes terpenes – the stuff that gives evergreen trees their fresh scent – and ethanol – the active ingredient in beer. So, while some VOCs are indeed toxic in large-enough quantities, it doesn’t mean all of them are.
But even if all the so-called scientists trying to scare us with warning about volatile organic compounds in e-cigarette vapor were right, this recent Spanish study shows that you should actually be more worried about the VOCs in your own normal breath than those in e-cig vapor. “The results of the study basically showed that indoor air and normal exhaled breath contains more VOCs that the e-cigarette aerosol,” Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos, who wasn’t involved in the research, writes on his blog. He calculated 17 and 25 VOCs in the 2 e-cigarettes tested, 36 VOCs in indoor air and 42 in normal (non-smoking, non-vaping) exhaled breath. Tobacco cigarette smoke contained 86 VOCs, and exhaled breath after smoking similarly contained a large number of VOCs. As I mentioned, not all volatile organic compunds are toxic but, there were cases of toxic compounds present in the exhaled breath but not in the e-cigarette aerosol. For example, isoprene, which is listed as a carcinogenic compound in the highly controversial California Proposition 65 , is present only in exhaled breath (even in normal exhaled breath), but not in e-cigarette aerosol.
So what this shows us basically is that when you take a puff on your electronic cigarette, the exhaled vapor does contain a few volatile organic compounds, but almost all of them are produced naturally by your body, and only a few actually come from the e-cig.
The study also points out the absence of carbonyls (aldehydes) in exhaled breath after taking e-cigarette puffs, as well as the absence of several toxic compounds in both exhaled breath and in the aerosol, which, as Dr. Farsalinos points out “is relevant to the safety of e-cigarettes compared to the huge emissions in tobacco cigarette smoke.”
There were some methodological problems concerning the study, such as participants retaining their breaths for 20 seconds before exhaling into the Bio-VOC body through a disposable cardboard mouthpiece at their highest capacity, which is not exactly a faithful replication of vaping. “Thus, the study probably overestimated the absorption rate of VOCs present in cigarette smoke or e-cigarette aerosol,” Dr. Farsalinos notes, adding that the information is still valuable because researchers also measured the smoke and e-cigarette content directly from the cigarette and atomizer.
Bottom line, e-cigarette vapors not only contains less volatile organic compounds than cigarette smoke, but also less than a non-smoker’s breath. I’d say that challenges the ‘second-hand vapor’ theory in a big way.