The Dangers of Vaping Around Your Kids

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

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

Simply put, vaping around babies, kids, and pregnant people is not safe. In fact, vaping around anyone comes with risks. Not only are the chemicals given off by vape pens and e-cigarettes dangerous to breathe, but they can settle on clothes and surfaces where they can continue to impact the health of people in the space well after the vape is put away.

In many places, vaping has become so commonplace that it can be hard to take a walk with your kids without getting a whiff of a sickly-sweet fume from someone vaping nearby. 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 their health at even higher risk.

We spoke with four doctors and pediatricians about the dangers of vaping around children. Here’s everything you need to know about the dangers of vaping around kids.

What Is Vaping?

“Vaping is a term used for the use of electronic cigarettes. These are battery-operated devices that entered the U.S. market in 2006,” says Cynthia Ambler, M.D., a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine. Vapes go by a ton of different names and are offered by multiple brands in different 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, M.D., a 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.”

Ellen Rome, M.D.

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.

— Ellen Rome, M.D.

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: Vapes contain nicotine, but not 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," she adds.

Is Vaping Worse Than 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, M.D., 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," she says. Dr. Rome adds that it is also likely easier to get addicted to vaping due to the higher concentrations of nicotine in vape products.

The chemicals in vaping are not safe for babies or kids

The chemicals found in vape "smoke" are different from those found in cigarette smoke. “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.”

And while many love the flavors that vaping offers, the added flavorings may 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.

J. Taylor Hays, M.D.

Scientific evidence is unclear about what chronic exposure to electronic cigarette vapor will do to children. The concern is that these chemicals could impact the developing nervous system, primarily the brain, as well as the lungs, however, it will be years before we know the actual impact.

— J. Taylor Hays, M.D.

Secondhand vape smoke causes side effects

Secondhand smoke from vaping, the vapor created by the use of e-cigarettes that lingers in the air, also can have serious side effects for people exposed to it.

“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.

“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,’” she explains.

Thirdhand vape smoke is also harmful

And don’t forget about thirdhand smoke. Thirdhand smoke is made up of the residual chemicals that get left behind on furniture, walls, and other surfaces when someone vapes or smokes inside. Thirdhand vape aerosol is not safe for anyone but can be especially harmful to babies and kids who are more likely to touch these surfaces and then put their hands in the eyes, nose, and mouth.

“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 [their] 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, M.D., an internist at the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic.

“Due to the lack of regulation, the chemical compounds in an e-cigarette device can vary between brands,” says Dr. Judy. "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,” she adds.

How Vaping Around Babies and Kids Affects Them

Vaping around babies and kids can inadvertently expose them 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 secondhand and thirdhand 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.”

And the harmful effects of vaping around babies likely begin as early as pregnancy. “We know that nicotine is toxic to developing fetuses,” says Dr. Judy. “In lab 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."

What do the results of these animal studies mean? Well, they suggest that when a pregnant person is exposed to secondhand aerosol from vaping, it may very well affect their developing baby during pregnancy and after birth.

Perhaps more concerning than what research says about the negative effects of secondhand and thirdhand vaping on children is what experts don't yet know. Since e-cigarettes are still relatively new, research has yet to identify all of the 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.”

The Risk of Vape-Related Accidents

Young children are also more at risk for accidents involving e-cigarettes, such as poisoning and burns.

“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 nicotine, 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,” says Dr. Judy.

How You Can Protect Your Kids From the Effects of Vaping

Plain and simple: Don't vape, and if you do vape, quit. “The best way to protect your children is to never smoke or vape near them,” says Dr. Judy. That said, vaping is a highly addictive activity that can be incredibly difficult to quit. If you do vape, it's extremely important to practice thorough hygiene to protect your children from any vaping residue.

Tips for Reducing Your Child's Risk

If you or someone you know vapes, here are some tips to minimize your child's exposure to dangerous vape chemicals:

  • Never vape indoors, in your car, or in places where children spend time to reduce their exposure secondhand and thirdhand vape aerosol.
  • Always change your clothes and wash your hands thoroughly to remove residual vape chemicals before touching a baby, young child, or pregnant person.
  • Never leave vape parts, including chemical cartridges, anywhere that babies or kids can reach them.
  • Avoid vaping in front of young children since vape units often look bright and colorful, and the scent of chemicals is often sweet like candy.

“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 to 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.”

Key Takeaway

Vaping around babies, kids, and pregnant people is unsafe not only because of the exposure to chemicals that include dangerous toxins but also because the long-term side effects are still largely unknown, making the risk potentially higher than science currently understands it.

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