New research on e-cigarettes is revealing more concerns and scientifically based reasons for a more cautious approach to considering the e-cig a “healthier” alternative to traditional cigarettes.
A recent study, published in the Environmental Science and Technology, examined the vapors produced from e-cigarettes—testing them to see what happens when the vaping device gets hot and hotter. The research indicated that the hotter an e-cigarette becomes, and the more that particular device is used, the more toxic compounds it emits.
It is a known fact that the flavored liquid used in e-cigarettes contains nicotine. Earlier debate has focused on the fact that there is less nicotine in an e-cigarette than in traditional tobacco cigarettes, therefore making the e-cigarette safer. This new study looked at solvents in the vaping liquids and what happens to them as the liquid is heated. What they found is that the heating coil of the e-cigarette device causes those solvents to break down, forming new and toxic compounds.
“Those chemicals include formaldehyde (For-MAL-duh-hyde) and acetaldehyde (AA-sit-AL-duh-hyde). Both are considered likely to cause cancer. Another toxic aldehyde — acrolein (Aa-KRO-LEE-un) — can severely irritate the eyes and airways.”
Hugo Destaillats, a chemist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California was part of the research team conducting this study. Their results have detected vapors not previously talked about in discussions about electronic cigarettes. “There is this image that e-cigarettes are a lot better than regular cigarettes, if not harmless,” Destaillats says. As a result of the new research, he says, “We are now definitely convinced that they are far from harmless.” (www.sciencenewsforstudents.org, 07-28-16)
“What seems to be happening, he says, is that the more heat you pour into the e-cigarette, the faster it makes the liquid evaporate. At some point, however, the liquid can’t get any hotter. So putting even more heat into it no longer just vaporizes it. Now the liquid actually breaks down into new, and more toxic, chemicals.” (www.sciencenewsforstudents.org, 07-28-16) “That increase in the formation of toxic gases tended to climb gradually as the coils got hotter. But at high voltages that changed. Suddenly, Destaillats notes, there was a sharp boost in the three most harmful aldehydes present in the vapor.” (www.sciencenewsforstudents.org, 07-28-16)
The chemists tested the e-cigarettes in multiple ways. They conducted tests using a new device for each ‘puffing session’. Then they used the same device multiple times—set at a high-voltage level. And what they found is that multiple uses of the device—which replicates the public user’s experience—give off different vapors. After being used as few as nine times the vapors contained 60% more aldehydes than in the first few puffs.
The scientists attribute this to the interaction of the heated liquid and the heating coil. As the liquids broke down they left behind residue. “These residues, the Berkeley scientists now say, would serve as an additional source of material from which to make toxic aldehydes.”
Other studies have been conducted on the vaping liquid but the Berkeley researchers discovered something others scientists had not discovered. According to Maciej Goniewicz, a toxicologist at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., they developed a better analytical technique and were able to isolate the new compounds found in the vapors. These include propylene oxide and glycidol, both toxic.
So what are the takeaways at this stage? They are two-fold. First, we do not know enough about e-cigarettes to comfortable assume they are safe enough for widespread, continued use. The tobacco industry’s main promotion/marketing point is that the e-cigarette is safer than traditional cigarettes and can be helpful for those trying to “kick the habit”. We are just now beginning to get scientific data to allow for fact-based talking points about the long-term safety of e-cigarettes. Second, as Goniewicz cautions, “If you’re going to vape, try using the lowest voltage possible, for the lowest temperature.”