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By Frank J. Dinan

One day when I was a chemistry graduate student, an emergency toxicology team suddenly arrived at our laboratory. A student had spilled nicotine and if it was absorbed through his skin, he would probably die. Fortunately, he was protected by extensive safety equipment and he lived, but it was a frightening moment for us all.

Today, anyone can buy nicotine-containing “e-juice” for electronic cigarettes from kiosks in malls and “vapor” stores everywhere, and it is a safe bet that they are not wearing safety equipment. The nicotine comes in “flavors,” such as Key Lime pie, cotton candy, honey tobacco and many others that are designed to appeal to potential young users seeking to be cool by “vaping.” E-cigarette sales and usage are not regulated by state or federal law. There is also no quality control protection for consumers; it’s strictly the Wild West.

E-cigarettes use a tiny rechargeable battery to power a heater that evaporates the e-juice, which then mixes with organic chemicals used in antifreezes to form their opaque “vapors.” Research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute has shown these vapors to contain several carcinogenic chemicals and nicotine that may be inhaled by both users and bystanders.

The exhaled vapors condense on surfaces, endangering the health of anyone touching them. This is particularly a threat to children, since their small size makes exposure much more hazardous than the equivalent exposure is to an adult. Clearly, this situation should be controlled under clean air legislation.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the percentage of high school students using e-cigarettes more than doubled from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. Amazingly, the report also indicates that 1.78 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2012 and confirms the success of the cunning e-cigarette marketing strategy.

This troubling information suggests that this rapidly growing group of young people is being exposed to nicotine, which is well-established as powerfully addictive. The experimentation of these youngsters may be dooming them to a lifetime of e-cigarette or conventional cigarette usage. Every effort should be made to inform parents and children of the hazards of e-cigarettes.

The current situation cries out for rapid and effective regulation. It took many years to reduce smoking to its present lower level and to minimize the exposure of the non-smoking public to cigarette smoke. The good news is that we now know how to do this. We should each urge our legislators to act immediately, using this hard-won knowledge to bring e-cigarette sales and use under responsible control.

Frank J. Dinan, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at Canisius College.