E-cigarettes may pose health risks even for passive smokers

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) assessed some typical substances present in e-cigarette liquids such as nicotine, fumigation agents, additives and flavoring substances: the fumes from these substances can be detrimental to the health when inhaled by e-smokers. Presently, risks for passive smokers cannot be excluded. Due to a highly diverse and growing product range, the current knowledge on putatively harmful compounds present in emissions and exhaled vapors of e-cigarettes remains limited Further, usage of refillable cartridges opens virtually unlimited opportunities to consumers for experimentation with and combination of their individual liquid preferences. In doing so, they may well apply concentrates and substances that are capable of posing a risk to human health. Together, this raises uncertainties on the identity of the pollutants released and the contamination of the breathing air that could affect human health. An generalized risk assessment for passive smokers remains difficult or is even impossible in individual circumstances. To provide an adequate protection for non-smokers, e-cigarettes should therefore being treated equal to conventional tobacco products in smoke-free areas. As suggested by BfR Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, “smoking of e-cigarettes should not be allowed in recognized or designated non-smoking areas. That way, e-cigarettes cannot affect the health of passive smokers.”

The BfR does recognize that e-cigarettes and their liquids represent a health risk. Apart from nicotine, these health risks are caused by the fumigation agent propylene glycol, chemical additives such as pharmacologically active ingredients as well as various scents and aroma substances (e.g. menthol, linalool), and contaminants. There are indications in the literature that some e-cigarette brands may also release carcinogenic aldehydes. The various substances are being emitted into the surrounding air through both the smoke of e-cigarettes and the breath of e-smokers. Based on current knowledge, risks for passive smokers cannot be excluded at the moment.

According to their individual taste and preferences, e-smokers can also combine various liquids. Since consumers have access to a wide range of additives and concentrates, in such cases it may remain completely ambiguous what exactly will be inhaled and subsequently exhaled by e-smokers. Under such particular conditions, third parties are unable to evaluate whether or not the emissions released pose any health risks to humans.

For this reason, the BfR recommends that smoking of all e-cigarettes is to be banned in smoke-free areas. In this regard, currently e-cigarettes should be treated like conventional cigarettes to ensure the adequate protection of non-smokers. Even in private homes, e-cigarettes should be handled like normal cigarettes, i.e. they should not be smoked in the presence of sensitive persons such as children, pregnant women and sick persons. 

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal States (“Länder) on safety issues related to food, chemicals and products. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

Opinion 1

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