Electronic cigarettes have been hailed as a healthier alternative to traditional tobacco smoking. However, a new study suggests this may only be partially true.
The study, conducted by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, examined the chemicals that make up the liquid used in e-cigarettes. Two substances found in the product, propylene glycol and glycerin, had the scientists questioning the safety of vaping products.
Both chemicals are considered solvents and used in many e-cigarette liquids for flavoring. By themselves, they are relatively harmless. However, after testing the vapor emitted from a vaping device, the researchers were particularly alarmed about are the chemicals released when propylene glycol and glycerin are heated.
To create the artificial smoke associated with vaping, a heating component inside the e-cigarette warms the chemicals. The heating of the propylene glycol and glycerin causes them to break down and emit other chemicals. The researchers found various toxic emissions, including acrolein, acetaldehyde, and formaldehyde, all thought to be respiratory irritants and linked to cancer.
“Advocates of e-cigarettes say emissions are much lower than from conventional cigarettes, so you’re better off using e-cigarettes,” said study author Hugo Destaillats in a news release. “I would say, that may be true for certain users — for example, long-time smokers that cannot quit — but the problem is, it doesn’t mean that they’re healthy.”
The e-cigarette study examined two types of e-cigarette devices, one with a single heating coil, and the other with two coils. Three different e-liquids were used and tested at varying battery voltages.
According to the study, the higher voltage devices produced more toxic chemicals. The number of dangerous chemicals also increased the longer the device is used per session. As the e-cigarette smoker repeatedly puffs, the device slowly gets hotter and the toxic level gets higher.
The age of a device also played a factor. Older devices contain residue from previous sessions, and this excess material burns in later sessions, potentially releasing even more poisonous gas.
Advocates for vaping adamantly disagreed with the study’s findings.
“This is a faulty study performed by researchers with limited to no understanding of how vapor products actually work,” said Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association. “The conclusions of respected organizations like the Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England — that vaping is at least 95 percent less hazardous than smoking — remain in force.”
Some think the study can help users choose safer devices, while manufacturers work to create better products.
“This is exciting information, as it moves us one step closer towards helping e-cigarette users choose safer devices, and use them in way that will produce fewer toxins,” said Dr. Laura Crotty Alexander of the VA San Diego Healthcare System. “And along those same lines, help e-cigarette companies design safer devices.”
Warnings about dangerous emissions from vaping devices are not new. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration released information suggesting e-cigarettes emit diethylene glycol, a toxic ingredient used in antifreeze. A study done in 2015 published in the New England Journal of Medicine found significant levels of formaldehyde in electronic cigarette smoke.
This new study comes at a time when e-cigarette use has become extremely popular, especially among young people. A 2014 survey of middle and high school students indicated 13 percent used a vaping device, more than three times the number from 2013. Statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 21 percent of adults age 18 to 24 use some type of electronic cigarette.
While the e-cigarette study found substances that may adversely affect someone’s health, most researchers agree they are safer than smoking traditional cigarettes. The potentially harmful chemicals contained in the vapor are at far lower levels than tobacco products. For anyone trying to kick the smoking habit for good, using a vaping device is likely safer than not quitting at all.
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