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More middle and high schoolers are getting exposed to secondhand vape aerosols, study indicates

The new study from Dana-Farber warned that a growing number of youth are being exposed to secondhand vaping aerosols, which contain potentially harmful chemicals.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press/File 2014/Associated Press

More middle and high school students are inhaling the potentially hazardous aerosols released by people who are vaping, according to scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The findings, based on thousands of responses collected from students by the federal government’s National Youth Tobacco survey, were published late last month in a research letter in JAMA Network Open.

The survey found that about a third of the students said they were exposed to aerosols from vaping in 2018 by people they are living with or were around. That was up sharply from about a quarter of students between 2015 and 2017.


Vapes, or e-cigarettes, release an aerosol, or mix of small particles, by heating a liquid. The aerosol contains potentially harmful chemicals, including nicotine, heavy metals, aldehydes, and glycerin, researchers said.

The news on secondhand vape aerosol exposure comes as government experts say there is an epidemic of vape use among youth.

Massachusetts officials have instructed health care professionals to look out for respiratory illnesses that might be related to vaping, after nearly 200 cases of mysterious lung illnesses have surfaced across the country.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health notified some 25,000 doctors, nurses, and physician assistants last week to watch for respiratory illnesses in patients who said they use e-cigarettes or vaporizers of any kind — and report those cases to the state. Patients with the unexplained illnesses have said they have chest pain, difficulty breathing, vomiting, and fatigue. Some cases have been more serious and can involve permanent lung damage.

Andy Tan, a researcher in the Center for Community Based Research at Dana-Farber’s Division of Population Sciences, said in a statement that the increase in secondhand exposure to vape aerosols was “concerning.”

“The majority of studies have concluded that passive exposure may pose a health risk to bystanders, particularly vulnerable populations such as children and teens,” said Tan, who was corresponding author of the new study.


The study also found that secondhand tobacco smoke from conventional cigarettes remained a concern, with about half the students in the survey reporting exposure to the smoke.

The survey participants were asked how often they breathed the smoke from someone using tobacco products and how often they breathed the vapor from someone using an e-cigarette, in indoor or outdoor public places, in the past 30 days. The researchers looked at the percentage who had been exposed on at least one day.

The researchers suggested in the letter that the increase in exposure to secondhand vaping aerosols could be because of “the increase in youth using pod-based e-cigarettes and other devices, fewer vape-free policies than smoke-free policies, and fewer people who are willing to speak up against others vaping in public places.”

The researchers called for accelerating implementation of “clean air laws” and continued monitoring of trends in secondhand vape aerosol exposure.

It also said that “education about potential [secondhand vape aerosol] harms for parents and youth and interventions to reduce youth vaping are needed to protect young people from being exposed to all forms of tobacco product emissions, including from e-cigarettes.”