Electronic cigarettes are rapidly growing in popularity despite lacking regulation. Researchers have been studying its health effects to catch up to consumer demand, but what they have found is not good. Researchers at the National Institute of Cancer Research in Milan, Italy, have found secondhand smoke from e-cigarettes produces overall less chemical exposure but dangerous levels of nickel in addition to exposure to a new chemical not even found in traditional cigarette smoke. They published their study in the Journal of Environmental Science, Processes and Impacts.

"Our results demonstrate that overall electronic cigarettes seem to be less harmful than regular cigarettes, but their elevated content of toxic metals such as nickel and chromium do raise concerns," the study’s co-author Constantinos Sioutas, a professor at the University of Southern California, Viterbi School of Engineering, said in a press release. The research team found lower levels of lead and zinc, but there were 10 times the amount of toxins overall, which is a cause for concern. How much does the good outweigh the bad as far as long-term health is concerned, and the alarming amount of teenagers using the electronic alternatives?

Nickel levels, for example, are four times higher in e-cigarette smoke than found in traditional cigarette smoke, and chromium was also found in the electronically produced smoke, which isn’t even in traditional smoke. Nickel is an industrial chemical and, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), human studies have reported exposure increases the risk of lung and nasal cancers. Mice that have breathed in secondhand smoke that contains nickel developed lung tumors, which is why it’s classified as a human carcinogen that causes cancer.

Chromium, on the other hand, isn’t even found in traditional secondhand smoke but only in concentrations of electronic smoke. It can travel into a person’s blood stream through breathing it in, eating, drinking, or even from skin contact, and can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing, according to the EPA. Inhaling high concentrations of chromium can cause ulcers on the lungs, pneumonia, asthma, nasal itching, soreness, gastrointestinal and neurological problems, and even skin burns. If a person inhales chromium-filled smoke over a long period of time, it can cause problems in the liver, kidney, immune systems, and blood, which is cause for alarm for anyone standing near an e-cigarette smoker.

"The metal particles likely come from the cartridge of the e-cigarette devices themselves – which opens up the possibility that better manufacturing standards for the devices could reduce the quantity of metals in the smoke," the study’s lead author Arian Saffari, a PhD student at USC Viterbi, said in the press release. "Studies of this kind are necessary for implementing effective regulatory measures. E-cigarettes are so new, there just isn't much research available on them yet."

Researchers wanted to make sure their results were as realistic as possible and placed their study’s participants inside real offices and rooms while they were exposed to traditional secondhand smoke from cigarettes and separate exposure to secondhand smoke from electronic cigarettes. The overall goal was to have measurements of the levels of metals exposed to smokers and bystanders in order for government health authorities to base their regulatory decisions on.

Source: Sioutas C, Saffari A, Daher N, et al. Particulate metals and organic compounds from electronic and tobacco-containing cigarettes: comparison of emission rates and secondhand exposure.  Journal of Environmental Science, Processes and Impacts. 2014.