Vaping Worse Than Smoking, Formaldehyde Study

By R. Siva Kumar - 23 Jan '15 08:15AM
  • A miner holds a cigarette
  • (Photo : REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh) A miner holds a cigarette after his last working day at Hungary's last hard coal deep-cast mine at Markushegy December 23, 2014.

A human carcinogen, formaldehyde, is found in cigarette smoke as well as the "vaporized liquid of popular electronic or e-cigarettes", said researchers on Wednesday.

E-cigarette are a rage in the US currently. People had hoped that the "vaping" would ease out cigarettes as well as reverse the almost 160,000 lung cancer deaths due to conventional smoking. However, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, formaldehyde in e-cigarettes, like tobacco, could be five to 15 times higher than from conventional cigarettes, according to nbcnews.com.

"It's way too early now from an epidemiological point of view to say how bad they are," said co-author James F. Pankow, professor of chemistry and engineering at Portland State University in Oregon. "But the bottom line is, there are toxins and some are more than in regular cigarettes. And if you are vaping, you probably shouldn't be using it at a high-voltage setting."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has dubbed e-cigarettes as safety "illusive", as their chemical content has neither been checked nor analysed, according to theguardian.com.

In a study, Pankow's team analyzed aerosolized e-liquid in "tank system" e-cigarettes to identify formaldehyde-releasing agents in "hidden" form at various voltages.

They discovered that 'vaping' 3 milligrams of e-cigarette liquid at a high voltage created 14 milligrams of "loosely affiliated" or "hidden" formaldehyde. Scientists point out that a tobacco smoker would be able to get .15 milligrams of formaldehyde per cigarette or 3 milligrams in a 20-pack.

According to Pankow, these numbers "may be conservative."

"We are not saying e-cigarettes are more hazardous than cigarettes," he said. "We are only looking at one chemical. ... The jury is really out on how safe these drugs are."

As more than 8,000 chemicals are present in tobacco smoke, it is tough to say that "formaldehyde is the main culprit" in the cancers caused by smoking.

"A lot of people make the assumption that e-cigarettes are safe and they are perfectly fine after using for a year," said Pankow. "The hazards of e-cigarettes, if there are any, will be seen 10 to 15 years from now when they start to appear in chronic users."

Initially invented in China in 2003, they entered the United States in 2006. A five-pack of flavor cartridges is equivalent in cost to a pack of cigarettes and starter kits are priced at between $30 and $100.

"A cartridge or tank contains a liquid of propylene glycol, glycerol, or both, as well as nicotine and flavoring," according to nbcnews. They are then brought to the boiling point with a battery-operated atomizer, and make for a smokeless vapor that can be taken in.

However, formaldehyde-containing chemical compounds can be released during the "vaping" process as the liquid picks up heat. In fact, a few e-cigarettes shoots upto beyond 1,000 degrees fahrenheit.

"The difference in e-cigarettes is the material that is heated and turns into hot gas as it cools is not tobacco, but two main chemicals," he said. "When it gets really hot, unwanted reactions occur."

Vaping dry marijuana or hash oil do not create the same symptoms, because their chemical component is different. "But it's totally likely that some people dilute hash oil with propylene glycol and glycerol, which we know can form formaldehyde," he said.

On the other hand, the e-cigarette company is dismissive of the study. It points out that the assessments were made in "unrealistic conditions", according to npr.com.

"They clearly did not talk to [people who use e-cigarettes] to understand this," says Gregory Conley of the American Vaping Association. "They think, 'Oh well. If we hit the button for so many seconds and that produces formaldehyde, then we have a new public health crisis to report.' "

However, that is the wrong approach to take, he said.

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