The Dangers of Vaping Around Your Kids

Vaping isn't the same as smoking, but it still has list of negative health effects all it's own—especially when it comes to children. Here's what you need to know as a parent.

parents vaping around kids
Photo: Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

It’s hard not to take a walk with your kids and get a whiff of a sickly-sweet fume from vaping. You know the deal—the whiff of grape or cotton candy can be pleasant…but whether the vaping is coming from a nearby car or passerby, vaping can have serious health impacts on your kids. And if you vape around your children, you are putting them at serious risk for developing them.

But it is a fact: it is not safe to do around children and babies. We spoke with four doctors and pediatricians about the dangers of vaping around your children. Here’s everything you need to know.

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What is vaping?

“Vaping is a term used for the use of electronic cigarettes. These are battery operated devices that entered the US market in 2006,” says Cynthia Ambler, MD, pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine.

They also go by a ton of different names, brands and designs.

“E-cigarettes are known by many different names including ‘e-cigs’, ‘e-hookahs’, ‘mods’, ‘vape pens’, ‘vapes’, ‘juuls’ and ‘electronic nicotine delivery systems’,” says Karen Judy, MD, pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine. “Some e-cigarettes are made to look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Some resemble pens, USB sticks, and other everyday items.”

Both e-cigarettes and cigarettes contain the drug nicotine, but they differ in how they get the drug to the lungs.

“With vaping, the liquid nicotine is heated, aerosolized and inhaled—but with smoking, the tobacco is burned via combustion to form a smoke that is inhaled,” says Dr. Ambler.

And that’s the main difference between vaping and smoking cigarettes—vaping does not contain tobacco.

“It is true that there are some harmful components of tobacco smoke (cigarettes) that are not present in nicotine aerosol (vape) such as tars and oxidant gases; however, most e- cigarettes contain other harmful chemicals.

Is vaping bad, when comparing vaping vs. smoking?

“There is a common misconception that vaping and juuling is safer than cigarettes; instead, it creates its own set of health hazards for lungs and brain and other organ systems,” says Ellen Rome, MD, pediatrician and head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children's. “For instance, adolescents who use e-cigarettes are twice as likely to suffer from respiratory symptoms such as persistent cough, bronchitis, and other challenges than youth who do not use. Also, it is easier to get nicotine addicted with vaping due to the higher nicotine concentrations readily available.”

And the chemicals found in vape smoke are different from cigarettes.

“E-cigarettes commonly contain propylene glycol and glycerol. These substances can decompose to form formaldehyde and acetaldehyde which are known carcinogens,” says Dr. Ambler. “They can also contain metals such as lead, nickel and arsenic, which are known to be harmful to the human body.”

The secondhand smoke from vaping (as with smoking cigarettes) also can carry serious side effects.

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“Secondhand vaping can contain carcinogens like nitrosamines which can cause cancer. The long-term health effects on users and bystanders are still unknown,” says Dr. Judy. “However, in 2016, the Surgeon General concluded that secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes contain, ‘nicotine; ultrafine particles; flavorings such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead’.”

And don’t forget about thirdhand smoke.

“Due to the lack of regulation, the chemical compounds in an e-cigarette device can vary between brands,” says Dr. Judy. “Thirdhand aerosol, as with thirdhand smoke, is the residual aerosol that remains on surfaces and in dust after electronic nicotine delivery use; this residual may react with oxidants in the environment to yield secondary pollutants. Because nicotine on surfaces has been shown to be increased after e- cigarette use, thirdhand aerosol is another potentially harmful unintentional source of nicotine exposure for youth.”

And while you may love the flavors that vaping offers, they can also do major damage.

“There are more than 7,000 different flavorings available in e- cigarettes (including fruit and soda flavorings), and the effect of inhaled flavorings on lung function is largely unknown, with some studies showing a link between these flavorings and increased lung irritation,” says Dr. Ambler.

How vaping around babies and vaping around kids affects them

Vaping can expose infants and children to nicotine, as well as the other heavy metals, formaldehyde, and chemical byproducts of the heating process.

“Just like with cigarettes, babies and infants exposed to vaping can inhale or ingest second hand and third hand vaping of harmful toxins and carcinogens, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nicotine, organic compounds that may be volatile, and fine particles,” says Dr. Rome. “Metal and silicate particles are often in higher concentrations in vaping byproducts than in cigarettes, from the metal coil used in the heating element. Children may cough, wheeze, have more frequent respiratory illnesses, or show signs of nicotine toxicity.”

Specifically, when it comes to vaping around babies, you need to be aware that vaping around pregnant women can impact the developing baby.

“We know that nicotine is toxic to developing fetuses,” says Dr. Judy. “In labs studies, neonatal mice exposed to aerosol from nicotine containing e-cigarette solutions had decreased weight gain and impaired lung growth compared with mice exposed to room air. These studies raise concern for human in utero exposure and neonatal exposure to nicotine containing devices.”

If you have toddlers or young children, they can more easily be exposed to residues of vaping.

“Because children are often in contact with the environment to a much greater degree than adults (children are constantly on the floor and infants often put objects in her mouth or lick objects in the environment exposing them to higher concentrations of these chemicals that land on surfaces more so than adults). We have concerns that these chemicals could cause problems with the developing lungs and developing nervous system,” says J. Taylor Hays, MD, internist at the Nicotene Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic.

Young children are also more at risks for accidents involving e-cigarettes.

“More importantly, toddlers and children may ingest the attractive e-liquid refills or swallow a ‘mod’ or a ‘pod’. Pods can look like a little nicotine Lego, which could easily be swallowed quickly by an active toddler,” says Dr. Rome. “The amount of poisonings due to unintentional exposure to e-cigarette solutions containing nicotine has increased exponentially in the United States since 2011, with several fatalities.”

E- cigarettes have also been reported to cause burns, explosive injuries and chemical injuries.

“The Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act of 2015 now requires containers of e-liquid to come in child-resistant packaging, yet we still get thousands of toxic exposures in children each year. The lithium-ion batteries used in the heating element have also been found to explode, leading to chemical burns and fires,” says Dr. Rome.

If a child ingests nicotene, it is considered a poisoning.

“A child can be killed by very small amounts of nicotine: less than half a teaspoon. Calls to poison control centers related to e-cigarette devices have skyrocketed in the last 5 years,” says Dr. Judy

However, since e-cigarettes are relatively new, research has yet to ultimately determine long-term effects of vaping on children.

“Scientific evidence is unclear about what chronic exposure to electronic cigarette vapor will due to children—the concern is that these chemicals could impact the developing nervous system, primarily the brain, as well as the lungs,” says Dr. Hays. “However, it will be years before we know the actual impact on the current generation of children who are chronically exposed to electronic cigarette vapor.”

How you can protect your children from the effects of vaping

Plain and simple: if you are a parent that vapes, do not do it near your children.

“The best way to protect your children is to never smoke or vape near them,” says Dr. Judy. “Never smoke indoors, in your car, or in places that children spend time. Using a ‘smoking jacket’ that is kept outside/ away from children is another measure to protect children.”

However, if you do vape, be sure to practice thorough hygiene to protect your children from any vaping residue.

“If you do vape, shower, change, wash your hands, get all smell/vape particles off you before picking up your child,” says Dr. Rome

And seek help so you can quit vaping.

“Attempting to stop all nicotine products is the most beneficial thing you can do for your child. Encouragingly, some studies suggest that there may be potential for e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool but more trials are needed to evaluate this claim,” says Dr. Ambler. “It is difficult but not impossible to stop the nicotine habit and I strongly encourage all parents to make an appointment with their primary care physician to discuss the treatment options available.”

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