By Randy Dotinga
WEDNESDAY, Sept. 3, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Secondhand vapor created by one brand of electronic cigarette harbors fewer hazardous chemicals than regular cigarette smoke, although the researchers report the finding doesn't leave e-cigarettes in the clear.
The study has caveats. For one, it doesn't examine which hazardous chemicals in e-cig vapor actually make it into the lungs of people nearby. And the scientists only looked at indoor smoking, which is often banned in the United States.
Still, the findings indicate that "generally speaking, e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes," said study author Arian Saffari, a graduate student and fellow with the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California. However, "we can still find some hazardous material in e-cigarette smoke," Saffari noted. "And therefore we cannot leave e-cigarettes unregulated."
The World Health Organization and the American Heart Association (AHA), along with other health agencies, recently called for the regulation of e-cigarettes. The AHA wants the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the marketing and sale of e-cigarettes to young people. The FDA first proposed a rule last April that would allow it to regulate e-cigarettes as it does tobacco products, but that proposal has not been finalized yet.
The AHA has noted that a recent study found that youth exposure to e-cigarette advertising rose 250 percent from 2011 to 2013, and now reaches roughly 24 million young people.
In the new study, researchers analyzed the air in an office space at a cancer research center in Milan, Italy. Two men and a woman smoked either regular cigarettes or an e-cig known by the brand name Ovale that's sold around the world.
With the help of battery power, e-cigs create a nicotine vapor that users inhale. Sometimes called "vaping," e-cigarettes are touted as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes and even as an aid to help smokers quit. But there's debate about whether these claims are true.
The Italian study found that hazardous substances known as "particulates" -- liquids or solid particles -- were 10 times higher in the cigarette smoke than in the e-cig vapor.
But the e-cig vapor was still unhealthy. Researchers found that it contained levels of "heavy metals," such as chromium and nickel, possibly released by the cartridge that holds a nicotine solution in the e-cig, Saffari said. "In terms of their health effects, some of these metals are extremely toxic even in very low amounts," he added.
Saffari suggested that e-cig manufacturers could limit the heavy metals in vapor by using higher-quality materials for cartridges.
Peter Hajek, a professor of clinical psychology at Barts and The London Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of London, is not worried by the levels of heavy metals in the e-cig vapor.
"The study shows that regarding the most dangerous chemicals released by tobacco smoke, e-cigarette vapor contains none. Other chemicals it does contain are mostly a small fraction of those from cigarettes, and the metal compounds it releases are at levels unlikely to pose a risk," said Hajek, who studies tobacco risks.
"The conclusion should be that e-cig vapor is unlikely to pose any risk to bystanders. This tallies with other studies conducted so far," he noted.
Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said the level of heavy metals and other chemicals in e-cigarette vapor is similar to that of inhalable products other than cigarettes, in particular the FDA-approved Nicorette Inhaler that's used to help people quit smoking.
In the big picture, he said, "this study, as well as hundreds of other studies, provide clear evidence that e-cigarettes are far, far less hazardous than smoking, likely in the range of 98 to 99 percent."
The study was published Aug. 22 in the online edition of the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts.