Image courtesy of pbs.org
E-Cigarettes and vapes are undeniably popular among adolescents. Thanks to social media, videos of people vaping have flooded the Internet and young adults are increasingly exposed to this new alternative to smoking. Vapers like Titus Edwards (pictured below) have even established a career based on their ability to blow different shapes with vape smoke. But how safe is this trend?
Since their inception, these devices have worried scientists and public health officials alike due to their unknown health effects. Much like they advertised cigarettes as “entirely harmless” until as late as the 1950s, companies are marketing these substitutes as “safe” or “safer”. Years later, as researchers publish more conclusive scientific study results, we finally know the detrimental effects of these alternatives.
A February 2017 study conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that e-cigarette and vape liquids contain high levels of toxic metals. Researchers found that these liquids, used to create the aerosol inhaled by vapers, contain five heavy metals: lead, nickel, manganese, chromium, and cadmium.
These results were not confined to one particular brand of e-cigarette liquids either—scientists analyzed the presence of these five chemicals present in liquids across multiple brands and found that all brands contained toxic levels of each. When inhaled, these chemicals are known to cause cancer. Researchers believe the main source of the metals is the coil that heats the e-liquid to create the “vapor”.
Another study, published in PLoS ONE in March of 2017, evaluated the byproducts of heating e-cigarette fluid using gas chromatography. Researchers found that fluids containing propylene glycol and glycerol (commonly found in almost every e-cigarette liquid) could form benzene as a result of the heat introduced to the fluid in order to produce the aerosol “vapor”. Benzene is the largest single known human carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, so vapers face almost the same risk of developing lung cancer as regular smokers. Though scientists noted that the level of benzene produced by e-cigarette systems was lower than that produced by regular cigarettes, repeated exposure to the compound is deadly. In addition, the level of benzene produced by e-cigarettes is much higher than the accepted, or safe, concentration for inhalation.
Though vapers may be eager to find the next “healthier” alternative, keep in mind that the inhalation of any combusted materials may be inherently dangerous. In a 2014 study released by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that the heat of the inhaled vapor from e-cigarettes damaged lung tissue and cilia in the respiratory system. Prolonged use and exposure could lead to more severe, permanent damage.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only began regulating e-cigarettes last year and has not issued warnings or labeling regulations yet. Hopefully, with the publication of recent studies and increased awareness about the dangers of smoking in all forms, the FDA will enforce tighter restrictions on companies that produce dangerous cigarette alternatives. For now, the incident serves as a cautionary lesson: be wary of social media trends.