By Amy Bohnenkamp
The surge of vaping-related illness has been dominating the headlines as of late. Over 530 hospitalizations and 7 deaths across 38 states have been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the government is considering how to respond. This week, New York became the first state to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, while the Trump Administration considers a similar measure.
Marketing claims have alleged that vaping is healthier than smoking cigarettes, but with the ongoing outbreak, the CDC suspects e-cigarettes contain some chemical that’s making people ill. (The exact cause is not yet known.) This epidemic should not only be concerning for human health. There is reason to believe that improper disposal of vaping products could pose a considerable problem for the environment, too.
Companies like Juul protect themselves from being held accountable for health or environmental problems because all ingredients and components for nicotine products are considered proprietary. Even authors of peer-reviewed studies on vaping acknowledge that they have yet to identify all materials that are being used in e-cigarettes. Heavy metals (including lead, chromium, manganese and nickel), plastics, flavorings linked to lung disease, and cancer-causing chemicals have been found both in disposable e-cigarette devices and their vapors.
E-cigarette advocates and manufacturers have also claimed that their products are more eco-friendly than conventional cigarettes because they don’t have the same pervasive littering problem, but these devices arguably pose more complicated disposal concerns. Batteries in e-cigarettes contain heavy metals that require specialized disposal to contain all residual metals. Cartridges often contain residual liquids when they are discarded, which contain nicotine, flavors and colorants. Vaporizers, plastics, glass vials, wires, and metal casings require specialized care to prevent toxic chemicals from being released.
The identified components could potentially leach into water sources and soil. However, it is highly unlikely that these products would ever be classified as hazardous. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the statute that manages hazardous waste, only regulates hazardous materials if disposed in volumes of over 220 pounds or more, and also has a household exemption which allows individuals to dispose of materials such as lead paints and batteries in their trash. However, exposure to unregulated amounts of toxic components can still be dangerous, no matter the amount.
Policy makers, the scientific community and the environmental advocates do not yet understand the impacts of these products, but it’s clear that we need to take their use and disposal more seriously while they remain available to consumers. Lifecycle analyses need to be conducted for vaping products in order to fully understand their health consequences for humans and the environment. Policies that require the disclosure of the ingredients need to be pursued so policy makers can make more informed decisions and recommendations when regulating products. E-cigarette manufacturers should be required to take back their products so they can be disposed in volumes that would be regulated by RCRA.
As our government considers how to respond to this epidemic, disposal of these devices has been overlooked. It needs to be a part of the plan to fully restore the health of communities and the environment.
Amy Bohnenkamp is currently pursuing her Masters in Sustainability Management at Columbia University. She currently works on Environmental, Health, Safety and Risk Management initiatives at The City University of New York and has a background in design and product development.