Scientists are still studying and debating the health risks of e-cigarettes and whether they cause cancer.
But there’s no question that nicotine can be hazardous — even lethal — if ingested. And a sharp rise in e-cigarette-related calls to the nation’s poison control centers suggests that’s happening with greater frequency.
An analysis of calls involving conventional cigarettes and liquid e-cigarettes by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found the proportion of e-cig calls jumped from 0.3 percent in September 2010 to 41.7 percent in February 2014.
Cigarette exposures are still more common. America’s poison centers reported 2,405 e-cigarette and 16,248 cigarette exposure calls from September 2010 to February 2014, the CDC says.
More than half of all e-cig poisonings were in children under 5 years old, and 42 percent involved adults over 20, says the CDC.
Conventional cigarette poisonings typically happen when kids ingest cigarette butts. Liquid nicotine poisonings occur through ingestion, inhalation or absorption through the skin or eyes.
"Use of these products is skyrocketing and these poisonings will continue," said CDC director Tom Frieden in a news release. "E-cigarette liquids as currently sold are a threat to small children because they are not required to be childproof, and they come in candy and fruit flavors."
Utah’s numbers track the national trend, said Marty Malheiro, outreach coordinator for the Utah Poison Control Center.
In 2012 there were 59 poison calls for conventional cigarettes and just 15 for e-cigs, she said.
In 2013, the numbers reversed. Seventy-seven Utahns called about conventional cigarettes and 85 phoned about liquid nicotine exposures.
It’s still a small sliver of the 45,000 calls annually to Utah’s poison center, and it doesn’t come close to rivaling the leading sources of poisonings — cosmetics and personal care items (for kids) and analgesics (for all ages).
And Malheiro expects e-cig calls to level off or decline.
"We saw the same rise with those single-use detergent pods when they came onto the market," she said. As news gets out about the danger and parents take steps to keep e-cigs out of the reach of young children, poisonings will drop, she predicts.
Utah has had no fatal e-cig poisonings, she said. California has reported one.
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