Electronic cigarettes are exposing young children in the United States to dangerous levels of nicotine. A new study in the journal Pediatrics found the number of poison control cases involving children swallowing the devices' liquid nicotine has steadily been on the rise since 2012.
"Exposures to e-cigarette liquid continue to go up," says Barbara Crouch, executive director of the Utah Poison Control Center. "In 80 percent of the cases we are consulted on involving e-cigarette liquid, a child under the age of six is involved."
The liquid nicotine in e-cigarettes is highly concentrated and contains anywhere from six to 36 milligrams of nicotine per unit. Swallowing nicotine can cause vomiting, rapid heart rate, seizures and possibly death, depending on the amount and concentration. "For a small child, that amount could be less than a teaspoon," says Crouch.
Nicotine can also get into the system through the skin, so a child playing with an e-cigarette may be exposed even if they do not swallow it. Nicotine also can be absorbed through the eyes, and can cause eye irritation as well.
Complicating the problem is the fact that the nicotine in e-cigarettes is more attractive to children than that in regular tobacco products. Nicotine liquids may be flavored and smell pleasant. The packaging often is brightly colored and sometimes looks like candy. It was only recently that the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act went into effect, mandating that e-cigarette liquid packaging be child-resistant. The Food and Drug Administration announced it will begin regulating the devices, but those regulations are not yet in place and the devices still are widely available.
"The most important thing to remember is that nicotine is a poison and should be treated as such," says Crouch. "Parents need to keep these devices up and out of reach of children - preferably in a locked cabinet. If a child is exposed, the poison control center should be called immediately to determine a course of treatment."