Battery-powered electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) were once thought to be an easy way to wean oneself off of smoking and a more socially conscious way to ingest nicotine than traditional cigarettes. As bans on smoking in public places have become more common in the United States and elsewhere, the sale of e-cigarettes have skyrocketed as smokers look for ways to enjoy a "smoke" in a smoke-free setting. A new study suggests the need to re-think the safety of e-cigarettes, though. They aren't quite so safe for smokers or others in the vicinity.

e-cigaretteThe first electronic cigarette was patented in 1963 but never really caught on until after 2008, when approximately 50,000 e-cigarettes were sold and smoking bans became common. E-cigarettes have become enormously popular since then, with 3.5 million of them sold in 2012. Sales for 2014 are expected to reach $1.5 billion.

E-cigarettes are sold under various labels, including personal vaporizer, electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS), hookah pens, and vape (vaporizer) pipes. Use of them is often referred to as vaping rather than smoking, since no smoke is produced.

Since interest in e-cigarettes has risen so high so fast, government regulations have not caught up to the trend  A recent article in the magazine, Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), published by the American Chemical Society, describes how scientists are testing the composition of e-cigarette vapor for health consequences and how government officials are approaching regulation of them.

One major health concern is the lack of quality control in the flavored nicotine-based e-liquid (e-juice) used in these devices. More than 60 flavors in five different nicotine doses present testing challenges tobacco doesn't. Flavors run from somewhat traditional — black honey tobacco — to the exotic — key lime pie. Kids usually prefer the sweeter flavors.

Toxicologist Maciej L. Goniewicz, of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, recently tested the vapors produced by 12 e-cigarette brands. Nicotine, of course, was in all of them but so were many other carcinogenic or toxic substances.

The vapors also contained heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, and nickel, all of which can cause throat and lung inflammation when inhaled. When expelled, e-cig vapors mix with other chemicals in the air to create cancer-causing compounds that are especially potent when children are exposed to them.

Smoking bans address the risks of secondhand smoke and a growing number of government entities are banning the use of e-cigarettes for the same reason. There is no national ban or regulation of sales of e-cigarettes but, as of this writing, dozens of cities and counties and several states have banned all sales of e-cigarettes. Nine states outlaw sales to minors.

Source: Lockwood, Deirdre. "Controversy Clouds E-Cigarettes." C&EN. American Chemical Society. Mar 10, 2014. Web. Apr 6, 2014.