• With concerns over teenage vaping at an all-time high, US schools are starting to embrace vape detectors, which are capable of detecting vape smoke that normal smoke detectors cannot.
  • These vape detectors are often placed in bathrooms, closets, and other private spaces where students congregate to vape.
  • Some of these vape detectors will send alerts to school officials showing the exact location of a suspected smoker.
  • While these devices are not brand new, their embrace comes during a time of heightened fear and uncertainty about how to combat record levels teenage vaping.
  • Over four hundred people have developed illnesses and at least six have died from what appears to be vaping related illnesses in recent months.

With alarms bells ringing  over a sudden surge in vaping related illnesses and deaths, an increasing number of American high schools are turning to vape detectors to snuff out bathroom smokers.

As originally reported by CNN, these vape detectors, which often resemble carbon monoxide detectors, can be placed in areas where students are likely to sneak off to vape, such as bathrooms and closets. These are different from traditional cigarette smoke detectors, which often fail to detect vape smoke.

How does it work?

In a promotional video, one of the leading vape detector companies, Soter Technologies, claims its devices are capable of detecting, "vaping, smoke, and noise disturbances that may suggest violence."

When the vape detector is triggered, an alert is immediately sent via text message or email to school officials, with the geolocation of the room where the detector was set off. The app will also send longer-term data to school officials on where students have been vaping the most so that they can deal with vaping "hotspots."

While vape detectors have been around for several years, they were often seen as unnecessary additions. That mindset is changing due to the sheer amount of student vaping today.

According to the US Federal Drug Administration, over 20% of teenagers reported using a vape or an e-cigarette in 2018 - a 78% increase from 2017. Health concerns, especially regarding younger children, prompted the Trump administration to recently announce its plan to introduce a ban on all flavoured vaping products.

Schools are signing up

Nearly 100 school districts in New Jersey have already submitted requests to introduce vape detectors into their buildings, according to WLNY. A school district in Ohio also announced they are interested in vape detectors and are simultaneously planning to increase the punishment for students caught vaping to thee days of suspension. In the suburbs of Chicago, several schools brought vape detectors in as well, according to WGN9, and earlier this year, Ridgefield High School in Connecticut also made the decision to install vapor detectors in its bathrooms.

In a statement sent to Insider, Soter Technologies CEO Derek Peterson said the company has seen their sales grow as concerns over vaping have increased.

"As states across the nation have adopted stricter laws prohibiting vaping in schools and other environments, [we] have seen rapid growth in the demand for our vape detection system," Peterson said.

Peterson told Insider over a phone interview that their first vape detector was released in 2016. Since then, "well over a thousand" schools across the country have partnered with the company and purchased their products.

School responses to vaping spark some privacy concerns

In desperate attempts to quell teen vaping, schools around the country have sometimes blurred the line between security and invasion of privacy. Earlier this year, a high school in Texas came under scrutiny after it banned long sleeve shirts and hoodies in an attempt to stop vapers from sneakily blowing smoke into their sleeves. More recently, an Alabama principal made headlines after he ordered the removal of the doors in several of his school's bathroom stalls. In that Alabama case, the doors were put back in one week later after parents issued concerns about their children's privacy.

These vape detectors, which will by design need to be implemented in private places where students frequently vape, may pose similar privacy concerns, especially due to their ability to detect sound. There are also some concerns about potential false-positive rates. At Conant High School, in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, officials reportedly installed and then removed vape detectors from its bathrooms after multiple false readings. When asked about false readings, Soter Technologies' Peterson said those incidents have occurred in the past but have diminished with newer models.

Peterson pointed to a case in an Ohio school where an outpouring of asbestos had triggered the vape detector. After that incident, the company updated the software to better distinguish between asbestos and vape smoke. As for worries of possible surveillance, Peterson told Insider that rather than record any audio, the device only measures how loud a sound is in decibels.

Some experts worry these vape detectors are short term solution to a larger, more systemic problem. In a statement provided to Insider, Mark Calarco, the National Medical Director for Clinical Diagnostics at the American Addiction Centers said schools should focus more on education.

"If you just try to suppress their behavior rather than educating them, I don't think it will be very successful based on what we've seen historically," Calarco said. "Every generation has found clever ways to circumvent those surveillance mechanisms. Young people need to be educated that vaping may not be a safer alternative to cigarette smoking." Peterson acknowledged that some motivated kids will always find ways to evade the detectors, but said they were still a benefit.

"This is not meant to be the end all be all to end vaping, but it's helping," Peterson said.

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