Poison control experts warn that liquid nicotine – a powerful stimulant –if ingested orally or absorbed through the skin, can be lethal, especially to children.
Liquid nicotine, a neurotoxin, can cause vomiting, seizures, rapid heartbeat, and death. It is sold legally for refilling electronic cigarettes, The New York Times reports, but even as little as a teaspoon of diluted e-liquid can kill a child. E-liquids, which contain flavorings and colorings as well as nicotine, are sold in stores and online and are not regulated by federal authorities.
Toxicologists warn that e-liquids pose a significant risk to small children, who are likely to be attracted to their bright colors and candy-like flavors like bubble gum, cherry, and chocolate, according to the Times. Poison control and health professionals worry that e-cigarette users, unaware of the dangers, may leave e-liquids where children have easy access to them.
The Times reports a sharp increase in calls to poison control centers involving e-liquids. There were 1,351 such cases in 2013, a 300 percent increase over 2012. At the current pace, the National Poison Data System said calls could double in 2014. In February, a 2-year-old Oklahoma City girl drank a small bottle of nicotine liquid and had to be rushed to the emergency room when she started vomiting. Of 74 e-cigarette and nicotine poisoning calls to Minnesota poison control in 2013, 29 involved children age 2 and under; 23 of 25 cases in the first two months of 2014 involved children 4 and under, according to the Times. These risks affect adults as well. In one recent case, a Kentucky woman was hospitalized with cardiac problems after absorbing spilled e-liquid from a broken e-cigarette through her skin .
E-liquids are more dangerous than tobacco, according to the Times, because liquid nicotine is absorbed more quickly. “This is one of the most potent naturally occurring toxins we have,” said Lee Cantrell of the California Poison Control System and a professor of pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco. Changes in e-cigarette technology have increased the risk of nicotine poisoning. Early e-cigarettes could not be refilled, but many are now reusable devices, which means users regularly handle powerful e-liquids.
Some advocates say e-cigarettes help people quit smoking, thereby avoiding the carcinogens and other dangers in cigarette smoke. But there are no long-term studies to show whether e-cigarettes are better than nicotine gum or patches in helping people quit, the Times says. Nor is there information about long-term health effects of inhaling vaporized nicotine.