Ideas to fuel a sustainable built environment

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E-Cigarettes and Indoor Air Quality

Jun 25, 2014 6:00:00 AM

A year or so ago I was part of an “office share” office where I had my own desk in shared office space with other professionals in unrelated fields. At the time, I lived 40 miles from our company offices here in Burlington, and to cut down on the daily commute, for a few days each week I worked out of this shared office closer to my home. It was really a great place to be, interesting, and much better for productivity that siting at the kitchen table!

Electronic Cigarette Inhalation Electronic Cigarette Inhalation (Photo credit: planetc1)

A mysterious smell

On my first day at this new office, I noticed a funny smell that would come and go. It was sweet, sort of chemically, and almost smelled like maple. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from and it left me puzzled for the first couple of days there. As someone very familiar with HVAC systems I was looking around for a glycol leak in a hydronic loop because the smell was almost like the sticky sweet smell of leaking antifreeze—but I found nothing. I finally noticed that one of my two officemates was puffing on an e-cigarette as he went about his day’s work. At the time, I was aware of e-cigarettes, and had seen them in use, but hadn’t experienced their use in relatively close quarters. Not knowing what the office policy was on “vaping,” or smoking an e-cigarette, I asked the owner of the office share, who quickly sent out a policy clarifying the policy on vaping—which was, thankfully, that you couldn’t do so indoors.

Indoor air quality versus growing market

Since this incident a couple of years ago, there has been growing coverage in media and an increase in scientific research focused on the indoor air quality impacts and other potential safety issues related to the rapidly growing e-cigarette market. After growing into an essentially unregulated multi-billion dollar business, the FDA has indicated it will take responsibility of oversight of the safety of the industry—though according to reporting in the New York Times, any new regulations, such as prohibition of sale to minors, may take over to year to still be implemented.


An emerging health risk

It turns out that there are many different chemicals being heated, vaporized, and then condensed into an aerosol cloud that makes up the “smoke” given off by an e-cigarette. One of the common base chemicals is in fact propylene glycol (though other base liquids are also used), which is what I had smelled the first day in my new office share. The propylene glycol is blended with nicotine, flavorants, and other chemicals to make the vaping experience more appealing. Unsurprisingly, these chemicals and their post vaporization byproducts are turning out to not be very healthy—and their dispersal into indoor air of buildings shared with other non-vaping occupants—may have significant public health implications. In this month’s ASHRAE journal, an author presents research findings [PDF] indicating that both direct and indirect exposure in indoor environments presents significant level of carcinogenic byproduct exposure. The author calls for regulation of the market, and for the prevention of indoor use.

Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme in the US with food and other product safety requirements. Rather than manufacturers having to prove that new substances and nonfood items are safe before going to market, the burden continues to be placed on outside organizations proving that substances are not safe—resulting in a lag when significant exposure can occur before research and subsequent regulation catches up.

Written by Ben Fowler