by Carl V Phillips
Apparently the nation’s Paper of Record (*cough*) has decided that going tabloid is a better business model. Or perhaps even better is to go full local-television-news, with its cut-ins during prime-time programming: “Six common household items that are planning to kill you tomorrow. We’ll tell you which ones tonight at 11:00.”
The story is part of what they are now calling their series about e-cigarettes, which has seen about story per week for a month — see in particular my analysis of this one. Hey, better late than never getting to one of the major stories of 2012. Maybe it took until now for the powers that be to tell them how they were supposed to be spinning it.
The story by Matt Richtel has the tabloid headline “Selling a Poison by the Barrel: Liquid Nicotine for E-Cigarettes”. The first sentence reads, “this article is intended to be a silly sensationalistic hatchet job, dictated to us by the tobacco control industry.”
Actually, that is a paraphrase. The exact words are:
A dangerous new form of a powerful stimulant is hitting markets nationwide, for sale by the vial, the gallon and even the barrel.
My paraphrase is more accurate, though, since it does not include the lies that nicotine is a powerful stimulant (it is a mild stimulant), is hitting the markets (that was several years ago), or that consumers buy e-cigarette liquid by the barrel. Manufacturers, of course, often buy ingredients by the barrel — um, what else should they do?
These “e-liquids,” the key ingredients in e-cigarettes, are powerful neurotoxins. Tiny amounts, whether ingested or absorbed through the skin, can cause vomiting and seizures and even be lethal. A teaspoon of even highly diluted e-liquid can kill a small child.
I have never been a fan of the term “e-liquid” (the liquid is not electronic), and will continue to avoid it in my writing, but that is the widely accepted term, so I will call attention to the scare quotes. Rather than using the journalistic standard phrasing like “these nicotine solutions, called e-liquids,…”, Richtel intentionally inserts a dog whistle message by using a construction designed to sneer at street lingo. This is a minor complaint, of course, compared to the lies in the rest of the paragraph.
E-cigarette liquid is not a powerful neurotoxin. Pure nicotine is, but the solutions are far short of “powerful”. The “tiny” amounts in question consist of many ml. You would have to keep that much on your skin a long time to get toxic effects or swallow a lot and manage to avoid the vomiting that he explicitly mentions to cause serious harm. For one teaspoon to kill a child, he would have to be very small (we are talking 15 lbs., not 30), it would have to be toward the high end of common nicotine concentrations, and he would have to absorb all the nicotine.
I will spare you the rest of the lies, innuendo, and crypto-prohibitionism in the article. It includes the usual references to yummy flavors, quotes from ANTZ, and alarmist reporting of the small number of poison control calls (small compared to, say, NRT products) and emergency department visits. Never mentioned to provide context for those statistics is that the recipe for getting a lot of poison control calls, and more so hospital visits, is “ingestion of poison”+”huge fear that it is a much worse poison than it really is”. There are plenty of poisonings by, say, soap or coffee, that have the same effect as almost all of nicotine poisonings from traditional tobacco products, NRT, or e-cigarette liquid (vomiting). But the barrage of warnings results in most any nicotine ingestion resulting in a call or visit.
The article also conflates occupational exposures (where there are larger quantities and higher nicotine concentrations before dilution) with household exposure. News flash: people working in manufacturing are exposed to a myriad of hazards, including poisoning, that they need to take precautions against. If a child has access to industrial quantities and concentrations of any manufacturing chemical, the problem is not with the chemical.
Setting aside all the lies, there is, of course, a germ of truth to this. E-cigarette liquid is more toxic than most items that can be found sitting around someone’s living space rather than stored in the medicine cabinet or garage. “Most”, because there are exceptions, including a stray peanut or other potent allergen (which would only be deadly to a few percent of the population, of course, but that is still greater than how often a teaspoon of e-cigarette liquid would be deadly).
But since this story was presumably planted by those who wish to ban e-cigarettes, it is not a helpful story about how to avoid these risks, which is pretty easy. (Hint: Don’t leave your e-cigarette liquid anywhere you would not leave a loose Tylenol capsule.) Helping people make better/safer use of technology is left to the NYT’s excellent technology reporters. The editorial writers at The Paper of Record (and make no mistake, this “news” story is a thinly veiled editorial) prefer government command over consumer wisdom.
The final paragraph reads:
The nicotine levels in e-liquids varies. Most range between 1.8 percent and 2.4 percent, concentrations that can cause sickness, but rarely death, in children. But higher concentrations, like 10 percent or even 7.2 percent, are widely available on the Internet. A lethal dose at such levels would take “less than a tablespoon,” according to Dr. Cantrell, from the poison control system in California. “Not just a kid. One tablespoon could kill an adult,” he said.
TrANTZlation: Richtel is saying, 1. I out-and-out lied to you in the second paragraph: normal concentrations are not all that hazardous, and I understated the quantity for even the higher concentrations by a factor of three (alternative interpretation: “I have never cooked in my life; isn’t a teaspoon the same as a tablespoon?”). 2. All the alarmism is about rarely-used high concentrations that are merely “available” (gasp! dangerous things are available on the internet? who knew? ban the internet!). 3. I went into journalism because I could not understand enough science to critically evaluate claims (a 7.2% solution x 1 Tbsp comes out to barely the estimated toxic dose for an adult, assuming she manages to absorb almost all of it (very difficult), but this exposure in an adult is only conceivable as a suicide — accidental consumption of that quantity seems rather unlikely).
The NYT ramped up with the not-terrible article I dissected earlier, but it is starting to look like they have decided to beat the drum for a war on e-cigarettes, much like they did for Iraq (and we know how well that worked out). Even worse news is that there is an authoritative rumor that they will have something just as bad tomorrow or the next day. More at 11:00.