18.6.9 Exposure to secondhand e-cigarette emissions

Last updated: February 2023 

Suggested citation: Winnall, WR, Greenhalgh, EM & Scollo, MM. 18.6.9 Exposure to secondhand e-cigarette emissions. In Greenhalgh, EM, Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2023.   Available from:   https://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-18-e-cigarettes/18-6-the-health-effects-of-e-cigarette-use/18-6-9-exposure-to-secondhand-e-cigarette-emissions 


This section summarises the current research describing the nature of secondhand and thirdhand e-cigarette emissions, their chemical constituents and their potential to affect the health of people exposed to these emissions. Experiments attempting to quantify emissions and pollution have yielded variable results, perhaps due to the wide range of available e-cigarette devices, e-liquids and modes of use. The studies of secondhand and thirdhand e-cigarette emissions are relatively new and incomplete. However, there is little doubt that those nearby people using e-cigarettes can be exposed to emissions from these products, which may increase their risk of health effects. Secondhand e-cigarette emissions and particulate matter pollution

E-cigarette emissions are aerosols, which consist of gases mixed with tiny droplets containing chemicals, as described in Section 18.5.1. As with tobacco smoke, people in the vicinity of e-cigarette use can inhale secondhand e-cigarettes emissions and may also be exposed to these chemicals from residues left on surfaces, known as thirdhand exposure.

E-cigarettes are assumed to produce emissions only when a user draws (inhales) from the device, meaning that secondhand emissions are likely to arise from exhalation by users alone. 1 However, empirical research supporting this proposal is difficult to find. Secondhand e-cigarette emissions therefore differ from secondhand cigarette smoke, which arises from 1) smouldering of cigarettes between draws, 2) emissions escaping from the mouth-end of the cigarette during a draw and 3) smoke exhaled by the user (see Sections 4.1 and 12.4.1). 2 Most studies of secondhand e-cigarette emissions have detected them in rooms, cars or purpose-built chambers after normal e-cigarette use, where the secondhand emissions are exhaled by users. These methods have not characterised the exact source of these emissions, in terms of exhaled aerosols compared to any emitted directly from the device, but they do accurately reflect the exposure of bystanders.

The aerosols emitted by e-cigarettes contain chemicals and contribute to particulate matter pollution (PM). 3 Fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5 due to the particles having <2.5 μm diameter, can penetrate into the gas exchange regions of the lungs (alveoli). Chemicals that reach this region may damage the lungs, as well as enter the circulation and cause damage to other parts of the body. Exposure to ambient PM 2.5 is a global risk factor for mortality and associated with respiratory and cardiovascular events. 4

A major Australian review has found conclusive evidence that e-cigarette use results in increased airborne particulate matter in indoor environments. 3 Specifically, e-cigarette use has been shown to increase the levels of indoor PM 2.5 pollution above background levels. 5-9 One study of secondhand emissions produced in a room-like chamber detected particles in the size range of 20 nm to 300 nm diameter, which constantly increased during e-cigarette use, reaching a final peak concentrations of 7 × 10 6 particles per litre of air. 10 Another study found that by one minute after e-cigarette use, the levels of PM 2.5 increased 160-fold above background at a distance of 0.5 m, and 103-fold at 1 m. 6 Increases in PM 2.5 have been demonstrated for e-cigarette use in rooms, homes, workplaces, convention halls and cars. 9-13 E-cigarettes using higher power or a higher ratio of glycerol compared to propylene glycol as a solvent produced higher PM 2.5. 14 , 15 There has been a progressive increase in the PM pollution emitted by e-cigarettes from the original to the fourth generation of products, which use increased power. 15 Chemicals detected in secondhand e-cigarette emissions

Secondhand e-cigarette emissions consist of water vapour as well as a range of chemicals in the gas and particle phases. A systematic review has reported numerous chemicals detected in exhaled e-cigarette emissions including nicotine, glycerol, propylene glycol, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and metals. 16 These mostly occur at lower concentrations than those in secondhand emissions from combustible tobacco products. 16

Numerous studies have detected nicotine in the secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes. 1 In a study using a room-like chamber, peak concentrations of 0.6 mg per cubic metre of nicotine, 2,200 mg per cubic metre of propylene glycol, and 136 mg of glycerol were detected. 10 Nicotine was detected in the gaseous phase of secondhand emissions, along with 1,2-propanediol, 1,2,3-propanetriol, diacetin, flavourings and nicotine. Carbonyl compounds, such as formaldehyde and other aldehydes, were not detected in this study. 10 Other substances detected in secondhand emissions include volatile organic compounds and metals, such as chromium, manganese and nickel. 17 , 18 Volatile organic compounds detected in secondhand emissions include toluene, benzene and isoprene. 1 Most of the chemicals detected in secondhand emissions are present at very low levels, but above background levels in households. 1

The 2018 review from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that there is “conclusive evidence that e-cigarette use increases airborne concentrations of particulate matter and nicotine in indoor environments compared with background levels”. 1 The Australia National University (ANU) review published in 2022 similarly concluded that there is “limited evidence that e-cigarette use results in increased concentrations of airborne nicotine …”. 3 Biomarkers of exposure to secondhand e-cigarette emissions

A biomarker, in the case of secondhand e-cigarette emissions, is a substance in the human body that can be measured in a test that will indicate exposure to specific chemicals from these emissions. Testing biomarkers in non-e-cigarette users can be used to imply exposure to secondhand e-cigarette emissions. However, there are limitations to this approach; people can be exposed to many of the chemicals in e-cigarettes via other sources such as tobacco smoke and other types of pollution. Currently there are few biomarker studies for non-users exposed to secondhand e-cigarette emissions, and the existing studies have produced mixed results.

Biomarker studies have indicated that people exposed to secondhand e-cigarette emissions can absorb chemicals such as nicotine. A study measuring cotinine, a biomarker for nicotine exposure, found this chemical increased in blood, serum and urine samples from non-users after exposure to secondhand e-cigarette emissions. 19 A second study found that the levels of blood cotinine in non-users, as well as airborne nicotine in the home, were higher when e-cigarettes were used compared to homes where e-cigarettes were not used. 20 Exposure to secondhand emissions may have increased the amount of acrolein in the blood of non-users who attended a vaping convention. 21 Health effects from exposure to secondhand e-cigarette emissions

There are known short term effects to the health of people who use e-cigarettes, including increases in heart rate, blood pressure, throat irritation and nausea (see Section 18.6.3 and 18.6.8). However, there are relatively few studies addressing short term health effects for people exposed to secondhand emissions.

In one study of vital signs in e-cigarette users compared to bystanders, the effects measured in users were increases in heart rate, breathing rate and oral temperature, and a decrease in blood oxygenation after 20 minutes of use. Bystanders, however, only exhibited a slight increase in oral temperature. 22 A prospective study found evidence that people exposed to secondhand e-cigarette emissions had an increased risk of shortness of breath and bronchitic symptoms, but not wheezing, after accounting for numerous other potential confounding factors. 23 An experimental study of 40 non-users exposed to secondhand emissions for 30 minutes resulted in reporting of symptoms such as burning, dryness, sore throat, cough, breathlessness and headache. Nasal and throat/respiratory symptoms were associated with the amount of volatile organic compounds in the emissions, implying that these chemicals may have played a role in producing symptoms. 24 Exposure to secondhand e-cigarette emissions may increase the desire for bystanders to use e-cigarettes themselves. 25 These are preliminary results based on a few studies, so considerably more research is necessary to confirm these findings.

A cross-sectional survey study has found that adolescents exposed to secondhand e-cigarette emissions in their households were more likely to report having asthma. 26 A second cross-sectional survey found an association with mental health effects. 27 However, cross-sectional studies cannot be used to imply cause and effect, so prospective studies are necessary before any conclusions can be made about for risk of asthma or mental health problems after exposure.

Long-term studies on the health effects of exposure to secondhand e-cigarette emissions do not yet exist; nor do studies on how these emissions might impact on the health of vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant women, and people with chronic lung or heart disease. Thirdhand e-cigarette exposure

Thirdhand e-cigarette emissions consist of chemicals from e-cigarettes that settle on surfaces and may build up over time. People may be exposed to these chemicals through touching these surfaces or breathing in these chemicals after off-gassing from the surface. 28 Nicotine itself is a common surface contaminant. 28

There is very little research on thirdhand e-cigarette emissions. A 2015 study of thirdhand exposure found that nicotine levels in the homes of e-cigarette users did not differ to those of non-users. 29 However, a later study found an accumulation of nicotine on surface and clothing after e-cigarette use. 30 More studies are needed to characterise the levels of exposure and potential risks from thirdhand e-cigarette emissions, particularly from contemporary devices and e-liquids.

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click  here. ( Last updated January 2023)


1. National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine. Public health consequences of e-cigarettes. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC 2018. Available from: http://nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2018/public-health-consequences-of-e-cigarettes.aspx.

2. US Department of Health and Human Services, A report of the Surgeon General: How tobacco smoke causes disease.: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2020. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53017/.

3. Banks E, Yazidjoglou A, Brown S, Nguyen M, Martin M, et al. Electronic cigarettes and health outcomes: systematic review of global evidence. Report for the Australian Department of Health. Canberra: National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, 2022. Available from: https://nceph.anu.edu.au/research/projects/health-impacts-electronic-cigarettes#health_outcomes.

4. G. B. D. Risk Factors Collaborators. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 84 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990-2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet, 2017; 390(10100):1345-422. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28919119

5. Omelekhina Y, Eriksson A, Canonaco F, Prevot ASH, Nilsson P, et al. Cooking and electronic cigarettes leading to large differences between indoor and outdoor particle composition and concentration measured by aerosol mass spectrometry. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, 2020; 22(6):1382-96. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32412028

6. Volesky KD, Maki A, Scherf C, Watson L, Van Ryswyk K, et al. The influence of three e-cigarette models on indoor fine and ultrafine particulate matter concentrations under real-world conditions. Environmental Pollution, 2018; 243(Pt B):882-9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30245450

7. Czogala J, Goniewicz ML, Fidelus B, Zielinska-Danch W, Travers MJ, et al. Secondhand exposure to vapors from electronic cigarettes. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2014; 16(6):655-62. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24336346

8. Schripp T, Markewitz D, Uhde E, and Salthammer T. Does e-cigarette consumption cause passive vaping? Indoor Air, 2013; 23(1):25-31. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22672560

9. Shearston JA, Eazor J, Lee L, Vilcassim MJR, Reed TA, et al. Effects of electronic cigarettes and hookah (waterpipe) use on home air quality. Tobacco Control, 2023; 32(1):36-41. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/34021062

10. Geiss O, Bianchi I, Barahona F, and Barrero-Moreno J. Characterisation of mainstream and passive vapours emitted by selected electronic cigarettes. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 2015; 218(1):169-80. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25455424

11. Cetintas E, Luo Y, Nguyen C, Guo Y, Li L, et al. Characterization of exhaled e-cigarette aerosols in a vape shop using a field-portable holographic on-chip microscope. Scientific Reports, 2022; 12(1):3175. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/35210524

12. Chen R, Aherrera A, Isichei C, Olmedo P, Jarmul S, et al. Assessment of indoor air quality at an electronic cigarette (Vaping) convention. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, 2018; 28(6):522-9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29288255

13. Amalia B, Fu M, Tigova O, Ballbe M, Castellano Y, et al. Environmental and individual exposure to secondhand aerosol of electronic cigarettes in confined spaces: Results from the TackSHS Project(dagger). Indoor Air, 2021; 31(5):1601-13. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/33905602

14. Eversole A, Crabtree M, Spindle TR, Baassiri M, Eissenberg T, et al. E-cigarette solvent ratio and device power influence ambient air particulate matter. Tobacco Regulatory Science, 2021; 7(3):177-83. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/34423081

15. Protano C, Avino P, Manigrasso M, Vivaldi V, Perna F, et al. Environmental electronic vape exposure from four different generations of electronic cigarettes: Airborne particulate matter levels. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2018; 15(10). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30282910

16. Hess IM, Lachireddy K, and Capon A. A systematic review of the health risks from passive exposure to electronic cigarette vapour. Public Health Research and Practice, 2016; 26(2):e2621617. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27734060

17. Kapiamba KF, Hao W, Adom S, Liu W, Huang YW, et al. Examining metal contents in primary and secondhand aerosols released by electronic cigarettes. Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2022; 35(6):954-62. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/35385266

18. Saffari A, Daher N, Ruprecht A, De Marco C, Pozzi P, et al. Particulate metals and organic compounds from electronic and tobacco-containing cigarettes: comparison of emission rates and secondhand exposure. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, 2014; 16(10):2259-67. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25180481

19. Melstrom P, Sosnoff C, Koszowski B, King BA, Bunnell R, et al. Systemic absorption of nicotine following acute secondhand exposure to electronic cigarette aerosol in a realistic social setting. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 2018; 221(5):816-22. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29853292

20. Ballbe M, Martinez-Sanchez JM, Sureda X, Fu M, Perez-Ortuno R, et al. Cigarettes vs. e-cigarettes: Passive exposure at home measured by means of airborne marker and biomarkers. Environmental Research, 2014; 135:76-80. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25262078

21. Johnson JM, Naeher LP, Yu X, Sosnoff C, Wang L, et al. A biomonitoring assessment of secondhand exposures to electronic cigarette emissions. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 2019; 222(5):816-23. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31085112

22. McClelland ML, Sesoko CS, MacDonald DA, Davis LM, and McClelland SC. The immediate physiological effects of e-cigarette use and exposure to secondhand e-cigarette vapor. Respiratory Care, 2021; 66(6):943-50. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/33785550

23. Islam T, Braymiller J, Eckel SP, Liu F, Tackett AP, et al. Secondhand nicotine vaping at home and respiratory symptoms in young adults. Thorax, 2022; 77(7):663-8. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/35013000

24. Tzortzi A, Teloniatis S, Matiampa G, Bakelas G, Tzavara C, et al. Passive exposure of non-smokers to E-Cigarette aerosols: Sensory irritation, timing and association with volatile organic compounds. Environmental Research, 2020; 182:108963. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31837549

25. King AC, Smith LJ, McNamara PJ, Matthews AK, and Fridberg DJ. Passive exposure to electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) use increases desire for combustible and e-cigarettes in young adult smokers. Tobacco Control, 2015; 24(5):501-4. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24848637

26. Alnajem A, Redha A, Alroumi D, Alshammasi A, Ali M, et al. Use of electronic cigarettes and secondhand exposure to their aerosols are associated with asthma symptoms among adolescents: a cross-sectional study. Respiratory Research, 2020; 21(1):300. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/33198741

27. Farrell KR, Weitzman M, Karey E, Lai TKY, Gordon T, et al. Passive exposure to e-cigarette emissions is associated with worsened mental health. BMC Public Health, 2022; 22(1):1138. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/35672813

28. Nath S and Geraghty P. Should we worry about children's exposure to third-hand by-products generated from electronic nicotine delivery systems? ERJ Open Research, 2020; 6(2). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32714967

29. Bush D and Goniewicz ML. A pilot study on nicotine residues in houses of electronic cigarette users, tobacco smokers, and non-users of nicotine-containing products. International Journal of Drug Policy, 2015; 26(6):609-11. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25869751

30. Melstrom P, Koszowski B, Thanner MH, Hoh E, King B, et al. Measuring PM2.5, ultrafine particles, nicotine air and wipe samples following the use of electronic cigarettes. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2017; 19(9):1055-61. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28340080