A new study just released this week by Harvard University has confirmed what a lot of scientists long suspected: the flavors in e-cigarettes aren't just benign liquids that fill your room with raspberry, but risky chemical compounds with their own particular health risks. It's part of a growing body of science that indicates that adopting e-cigarettes, or "vaping," instead of lighting up, may not be as unproblematic as it first seems. It's easy to applaud friends for giving up smoking for e-cigarettes: you're no longer likely to die of secondhand smoke, their clothes no longer stink, and they're not plunging themselves headlong into respiratory disease and lung cancer. But what are the real health risks of choosing e-cigarettes?
The big boon of e-cigarettes is that they don't contain any tobacco (or at least that's the claim). They're meant to be filled with water, flavoring, and nicotine. Great, right? Well, it depends. Both the flavoring and the nicotine, as we'll discover, have issues of their own, and there may be other nasties that, due to lack of regulation and proper testing, manage to pop their heads into the mix.
No matter how nice that strawberry scent smells compared to cigarette smoke, it's still necessary not to be complacent, and to make everybody do their homework properly before buying themselves an e-cigarette for Christmas. So before you virtuously ditch the Malboros for a vape, consider the evidence for the health risks.
1. The Ingredients In Flavored Fillings Can Cause Lung Disease
An important new study released this week by Harvard detailed something that e-cigarette users may not have worried about before: the ingredients in those tasty chemical flavorings may actually be seriously dangerous. The study found that 75 percent of all the commercially available flavor liquids they tested contained something called diacetyl, and are warning about the problems that might cause.
If you've heard of diacetyl before, it's likely because of popcorn. The chemical is found in a lot of microwave popcorn, and it causes a group of lung diseases called, colloquially, "popcorn lung". It damages the cells lining your airways, causing bronchiolitis obliterans , an incurable lung condition that can only be solved by complete lung transplant. Initially, scientists weren't sure whether these effects were just caused by ingesting flavored foods, but they've now got clear results to show that inhaling it is likely just as bad.
The study also found significant levels of acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione. Acetoin is an irritant to basically anything it comes into contact with, including lung tissue, while 2,3-pentanedione causes lesions in the airways and lung fibrosis. Merry Christmas to you, too.
2. Nicotine Has Its Own Health Risks
Take tobacco out of the equation and you're set, right? Not so much. A study from 2014 showed that smoking an e-cigarette over five minutes delivered only a third to a quarter the amount of nicotine a smoker would get from smoking a cigarette for the same amount of time. But the paper noted that the e-cigarette industry is catching up; soon e-cigarettes may deliver as much nicotine as cigarettes at the same rate. And that might be a bit of a risk.
Nicotine, it turns out, has its own health problems, which aren't as problematic as tobacco but should still be taken into account. It causes rises in blood pressure and pulse rate, and has been demonstrated to raise cholesterol levels if ingested orally. And it does peculiar things to the cells in our coronary arteries: it seems it actually changes our genetic profile, and may contribute to serious coronary disease.
A 2013 study found that even e-cigarettes with no tobacco can still harden arteries, thanks to nicotine's influence. The big picture is that nicotine isn't good for your vascular tissue in general, and that extended exposure is not going to be good news for your heart.
3. The Labels On E-Cigarettes Are Often Inaccurate
Yep, this is a health problem. A 2014 study that tried to examine the chemical profiles of e-cigarettes found so many differences between them that it was almost impossible to draw any firm conclusions; it looks as if things differ radically from brand to brand and even from cartridge to cartridge. This is important because some of the things they were testing for, like nitrosamines, had significant health risks, and their readings went from non-detectable levels in one e-cigarette to 62 micrograms per litre in another. (It's not very much, but it does still need to count, particularly if you're a regular user.)
It's important to point out that inaccurate labels don't necessarily mean e-cigarettes are delivering more nicotine or harmful chemicals; they're often delivering less (which is fraud). But the lack of regulation means people aren't fully aware of what they're taking in: one e-cigarette contains 178 micrograms of tobacco alkaloid in its refill solution. And there may actually be traces of metals in others.
The Bottom Line
Scientists are now pressing for e-cigarettes to be re-quantified. They shouldn't be seen as an unproblematic long-term alternative to smoking; instead, they should be seen as a "bridge to smoking cessation," as one scientist, Chi-Ming Hai, told Healthline. In other words, they're supposed to be treated like nicotine patches: not as horrible for you as smoking itself, but definitely meant to be the means to an end.
And it's important to remember that they are still better than the cancer sticks. So if you're a proud vape crusader, possibly keep your eye on the science and reconsider whether this could be your route to a smoke-free existence.