Maybe We Shouldn't Be Worried About E-Cigarette Liquids

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E-liquids—the liquid nicotine used to refill reusable e-cigarettes—are sold legally nationwide. But in the last couple of days, the seemingly harmless, smoke-free liquids have sparked some starkly contrasting media attitudes.

Matt Richtel of The New York Times writes that e-liquids are a dangerous poison—even more so than tobacco in some cases.

But‘s Jacob Sollum vehemently counters Richtel’s assertions, writing that, considered more broadly, e-liquids are no more dangerous than vitamins.

We broke down the arguments in order to directly compare their views on some of the key issues:

What is the range of nicotine levels commonly found in e-liquids?

NY Times: Most range between 1.8 percent and 2.4 percent, concentrations that can cause sickness, but rarely death, in children. But higher concentrations, like 10 percent or even 7.2 percent, are widely available on the Internet. The strongest fluid sold by 11 of the 13 companies [top e-cigarette companies] is 2.4 percent or lower. Vapor Zone offers 3.6 percent. White Cloud sells cartridges in a ‘Double Extra’ strength aimed at the heaviest smokers. These cartridges, which the company describes as ‘the strongest in the industry,’ contain 5.4 percent nicotine.

NY Times: Liquid Nicotine Wholesalers, based in Peoria, Ariz., charges $110 for a liter with 10 percent nicotine concentration. The company says on its website that it also offers a 55 gallon size. sells a gallon at 10 percent concentrations for $195. Richtel [the NY Times business reporter] cites two examples of 10 percent solutions, both involving large quantities sold by wholesalers, presumably to customers who dilute the fluid before selling it to consumers.

How much e-liquid does it take to seriously harm or kill a toddler?

NY Times: Higher concentrations, like 10 percent or even 7.2 percent, are widely available on the Internet. A lethal dose at such levels would take “less than a tablespoon,” according to Dr. Cantrell, from the poison control system in California. “Not just a kid. One tablespoon could kill an adult,” he said. According to a 2013 article in Archives of Toxicology, “a careful estimate suggests that the lower limit causing fatal outcomes [in adults] is 0.5–1 g of ingested nicotine”—i.e., at least 500 milligrams. To get that dose from a tablespoon (15 milliliters), the concentration would have to be 33.3 milligrams per milliliter.

How much of a threat do e-liquid poisonings pose?

NY Times: Nationwide, the number of cases linked to e-liquids jumped to 1,351 in 2013, a 300 percent increase from 2012, and the number is on pace to double this year, according to information from the National Poison Data System. Of the cases in 2013, 365 were referred to hospitals, triple the previous year’s number. None of these poisonings were fatal, and most (73 percent) were not serious enough to require hospital treatment. In 2012, by comparison, 311,347 poisoning reports involved analgesics, 221,314 involved cosmetics, 193,802 involved cleaning substances, 96,997 involved anthistamines, 88,694 involved pesticides, 68,168 involved vitamins, and 49,374 involved plants.

How many people have died?

NY Times: Since 2011, there appears to have been one death in the United States, a suicide by an adult who injected nicotine. But Richtel [the NY Times business reporter] seems determined to portray this particular hazard, which by his own account has not caused a single accidental death.

There is one thing the pair do actually agree on: Like rat poison and cleaning supplies, e-liquids should definitely be kept out of your kids’ reach—those bright colors and inviting fragrances might be confused for a tasty treat.

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