Electronic cigarettes were first patented in 1963. The mechanism simulates smoking a real cigarette by using a heating element to vaporize a liquid solution contained within the device. Most solutions consist of a mixture of nicotine and flavorings, while others contain flavors without nicotine.
Initially, many e-cigarettes were disposable devices that looked like conventional cigarettes. As the technology progressed, reusable units became available. These improved mechanisms could be refilled with solutions that contained varying combinations of nicotine, flavorings and solvents. They were more cost effective, achieved greater public acceptance and offered a variety of flavor choices.
The down side to all the improvements, however, is that now we have a dangerous, and even deadly, powerful stimulant on the market—liquid concentrated nicotine (e-liquid). It’s made in factories and even in the back rooms of shops, and it’s sold legally in stores and online. The solutions are available for sale by the vial, the liter, by the gallon and even by the barrel.
The normal nicotine levels in sealed, disposable e-cigarettes used to be 1.8% to 2.4%. But the new liquids used in these reusable devices are available in 7.2%, and even up to 10% concentrated solutions. Interestingly, it’s the higher concentrations that are available in the largest quantities on the Internet—with sizes ranging from one liter to a gallon for consumer use and up to a 55-gallon drum for manufacturing purposes, all with little regulatory oversight.
Some of the packaging for consumer use incorporates childproof bottles and warning labels, but many of the products coming from overseas—particularly from China—do not include such safety standards, and the FDA does not yet regulate the manufacture and distribution of nicotine-containing e-liquids.
Nicotine, in this most potent liquid form, not only supplies the fast-growing electronic cigarette industry but it also is evolving into a new recreational drug category.
The popular nicotine concentrates produce a stimulating high, yet are powerful neurotoxins. A teaspoonful of even highly diluted e-liquid can kill a small child. One of the reasons these e-liquids are so deadly is that they are absorbed more quickly through the GI tract than other substances.
Additionally, the nicotine solutions are readily absorbed through the pores of the skin. Recently, a Kentucky woman was admitted to the hospital with severe cardiac issues after her e-cigarette broke in her bed. The e-liquid spilled and absorbed quickly through her skin, causing a life-threatening cardiac event.
One of the problems with the concept of e-liquids is that adults do not seem to understand the risks involved in exposure to these concentrated solutions and carelessly leave the containers unprotected around the house. Between 2012 and 2013, there has been a 300% jump in the number of calls to poison control centers related to liquid nicotine overdoses, and the number is on pace to double this year. There has even been a documented suicide death by an adult who injected liquid nicotine.
Lee Cantrell, a professor of pharmacy at the University of California and the director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System, stated, “It’s not a matter of if a child will be seriously poisoned or killed. It’s a matter of when. This is one of the most potent, naturally-occurring toxins we have and its sold all over the place.”
Liquid, concentrated nicotine (e-liquid) provides an interesting opportunity for murder mystery writers to utilize a powerful neurotoxin that is poorly regulated, readily available and one that can easily be injected or incorporated into food, drink or on clothing to produce a rather dramatic, yet stealthy, murder scene.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!