It’s Not Just Cigarettes: Vape Residue Sticks on Surfaces Too

There’s a common belief that e-cigarettes and vapes are safe. There’s also a belief that thirdhand smoke residue is harmless. Both are untrue.

Over the past few years, research has shown that the vapor from e-cigarettes affects more people than just those who vape. E-cigarettes create an inhalable vapor by heating “juice” or “e-liquid,” a toxic and addictive cocktail of tobacco and flavor chemicals, including nicotine, ultrafine particles, diacetyl, volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals. People who vape are at increased risk of cancer, lung disease, and other health issues from breathing in these chemicals. The vapor is also harmful to others after it is exhaled by the person who vaped. It is similar to secondhand smoke, but since vapes don’t burn tobacco, it’s secondhand aerosols.

Like secondhand smoke, these aerosols can stick to surfaces. As they float around the air and come in contact with clothes, hair, skins, cushions, carpets, furniture, etc., they become thirdhand chemical residue. 

A 2020 study led by Yeongkwon Son, PhD, at Rutgers University examined what’s in thirdhand residue from vaping and how it sticks to surfaces and materials in vape shops. Son conducted his study in five vape shops in New Jersey. 

a woman sits at a counter and vapes

To measure thirdhand residue from vaping on surfaces, Son wiped a 1-foot-by-1-foot area in four spots in each vape shop: the floor, a television set, a picture frame, and a vape showcase. After wiping each sample, he prepped the wipes for analysis and sent them to the lab. 

Son also left five items in each vape shop to see if vaping aerosols stuck to each one: a piece of glass, a piece of paper, a rubber ball, a fur ball, and a piece of cotton baby clothing. He left these items in the vape shop for 14 days.

Son found that the more visitors to the vape shop, the more thirdhand residue there was on surfaces. Nicotine was the most abundant chemical in the residue. He also found cancer-causing NNA and NNK, two other substances in tobacco products, on surfaces in some of the vape shops. 

Of the five items, Son found the most nicotine, NNA, and NNK on the paper, followed by the baby clothing and glass. The rubber and fur balls had some nicotine but no NNA and NNK.

Son is the first researcher to look at thirdhand residue in vape shops, and he found that not only nicotine but other chemicals in vapes stuck to multiple surfaces and materials. If these chemicals stick to surfaces in vape shops, they can stick to surfaces in other indoor environments, including cars, homes, and restaurants – all places that children often visit. Children are more susceptible to thirdhand chemical residue because they frequently put their hands in their mouths, are closer to surfaces that could contain thirdhand residue (such as playing on the carpet), and have thinner skin than adults. 

Through research like Son’s study, scientists can better understand how toxic residue from vapes creates thirdhand chemical residue.  In addition, this study shows how children may get exposed to toxic substances left behind after vaping even though their parents never vaped in the presence of their children. They can use this knowledge to inform policymakers and encourage regulations that protect people – especially children – from thirdhand residue. 

Click here to read the research study.

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