The dangers of e-cigarettes

A woman smoking an e-cigarette from Shutterstock.
A woman smoking an e-cigarette from Shutterstock.

Electronic cigarettes, otherwise known as “e-cigarettes,” have been rising in popularity, and people have begun to use them as an alternative to cigarettes. However, the question is: Are e-cigarettes really better for you than traditional cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are battery-operated mechanisms that allow users to inhale, or “vape", flavoured vapour produced from replaceable cartridges filled with nicotine and other chemicals.

Escalating nicotine addiction

Many people vape e-cigarettes in order to kick their habit of smoking cigarettes. However, e-cigarettes have been met with controversy, as no evidence exists showing that e-cigarettes actually do help people quit smoking.

Debates have been triggered on the use of e-cigarettes about the possibility of escalating nicotine addiction and encouraging people to start smoking.

E-cigarettes companies selling addiction?

E-cigarettes are often manufactured to resemble cigarettes and offer a variety of flavours that may appeal to youth, such as bubble gum, apple and piña colada. TV advertisements and the widespread use of e-cigarettes have influenced adolescents, both those who smoke and those who don't, to try the product.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, the percentage of middle and high school students, vaping e-cigarettes more than doubled between 2011 and 2012; their study showed that in just one year students vaping e-cigarettes increased from 4.7 percent to 10 percent.

Read: E-cigarettes affect airways

Another problem some researchers have with e-cigarettes is that there is currently no scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of e-cigarettes.

Inadequate health warnings

In one study, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that some e-cigarette cartridges claiming to be nicotine-free actually did contain nicotine.

A research paper published in Tobacco Control, an international peer-reviewed journal for health professionals in tobacco control, in 2010 stated that e-cigarette companies do not provide adequate health warnings, proper labelling, clear instructions on how to use them and safe disposal methods.

The authors of the research paper also found that some e-cigarette cartridges leak, which could cause toxic nicotine exposure.

Read: E-cigarettes contain toxic chemicals 

Another study published in CHEST, the official publication of the American College of Chest Physicians, in 2011 found that e-cigarettes can cause acute pulmonary effects after vaping for only five minutes.

During the study, researchers had 40 healthy non-smokers vape e-cigarettes for five minutes. After the five minutes, the researchers assessed the non-smokers’ lung function, using a variety of tests.

Results showed that vaping for just five minutes caused an increase in oxidative stress, impedance and peripheral airway flow resistance in the lungs of healthy smokers. Though these test subjects only vaped for five minutes, an average user vapes multiple times in a day, thereby increasing their risks.

Read: E-cigarettes can damage lungs

In initial lab tests of e-cigarettes, the FDA found noticeable levels of nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic, and toxic chemicals, including an ingredient used in anti-freeze, in various cartridges and in two different brands of e-cigarettes.

Additionally, a research study published this month in Nicotine and Tobacco Research, a peer-reviewed journal devoted exclusively to the study of nicotine and tobacco, examined chemicals in e-cigarette vapour at a range of voltages and found that only traces of toxic chemicals were released at low voltages.

However, at higher voltages, higher levels of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde were released. Basically, the higher the temperature, the more toxins were released.

Read: E-cigarette refills can poison infants

Intense heat changes ingredients

E-cigarettes tend to not generate enough heat to create combustion, which is one of the main reasons why some researchers believe that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes.

However, with dripping, a process in which a person trickles drops of e-liquid directly onto the vape’s heating element, the e-liquid heats with such intensity that the toxins produced approach the concentrations found in regular cigarettes.

Intense heat can change the nature of ingredients of e-liquids, creating new and possibly dangerous chemicals.

Researchers are struggling with pinpointing the exact heat level that causes toxin levels to rise substantially, but Roswell Park researchers found that toxin levels increased considerably when e-cigarette battery voltage increased from 3.2 volts to 4.8 volts.  

Read more:

Superior e-cigarette designed in the US
E-cigarettes can help you quit

E-cigarettes contain toxic chemicals
E-cigarettes may not be a gateway to smoking

Sources: Reuters, American Cancer Society, NY Times, The South African Medical Journal, ABC News, Tobacco Control, CHEST and Nicotine and Tobacco Research

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