TIME

In Children’s Hands, E-Cigarettes Can Be Deadly

A woman smokes a "Blu" e-cigarette in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25, 2013.
A woman smokes a "Blu" e-cigarette in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25, 2013. Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

Poison centers are experiencing a spike in calls concerning children exposed to liquid nicotine, from one call a month in September 2010, to 215 calls a month in February 2014. The new findings are just the latest in increasing skepticism over e-cigarettes' safety

Update: Thursday April 3, 2014 4:00 p.m.

E-cigarettes have been criticized for targeting children, since many brands come in bright colors, and candy and fruit flavors. While some worry about tempting kids with an addictive habit, e-cigs can also be deadly for them.

On Thursday, the CDC released a report indicating a “dramatic” rise in e-cigarette-related calls to U.S. poison centers, from one call a month in September 2010 to 215 calls a month in February 2014. More than half of the calls involved children age five and under, while 42% involved people ages 20 and older. The nicotine in e-cigarette comes in a liquid form, which when ingested can lead to vomiting, nausea, and eye irritation.

“E-cigarette liquids as currently sold are a threat to small children because they are not required to be childproof,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden in a statement. “Use of these products is skyrocketing and these poisonings will continue.”

The study follows a New York Times report about the dangers that “e-liquids” pose, where small amounts can cause vomiting and larger amounts can lead to seizures and even death. “A teaspoon of even highly diluted e-liquid can kill a small child,” according to the Times.

The new findings are just the latest in increasing skepticism over e-cigarettes’ safety. The support for these cigarette alternatives is manifold: people argue they are are healthier than conventional ones because they don’t contain tar and tobacco, that pushing people towards lower spectrum nicotine carriers is ultimately better, and that they may help people kick their conventional smoking habit.

But evidence against them is mounting. Just last month, a small study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine reported that smoking e-cigs doesn’t help people smoking conventional cigarettes quit. Another study found that young people who smoke e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke regular cigarettes as well. Whether e-cigs are a gateway to the real thing remains unclear.

It’s too early for a definitive conclusion on e-cigarettes’ full spectrum of risks and benefits, but the CDC warns that they may be an emerging public health issue. In response to the study and growing concerns over safety, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg pushed senators at a Congressional budget hearing on Thursday to allow the FDA to establish regulation authority over e-cigarettes, Reuters reports. The FDA’s proposed rule is currently being reviewed by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

This post was updated with the latest news from the FDA.

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