- For a new study, researchers analysed urine samples from nearly 100 teens in the Bay Area.
- Those who vaped had significant levels of potentially hazardous chemicals in their urine.
- The research builds on a set of new findings which together suggest that while vaping may be healthier than smoking, it comes with its own set of health risks.
Vaping instead of smoking seems like an easy way to improve on a deadly habit. But the first good research on the fairly new practice, which involves inhaling heated vapour, is only now starting to emerge – and it suggests that although potentially safer than smoking, vaping isn’t as benign as it might seem.
In a new study published this week in the journal Pediatrics, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco found increasing evidence that e-cigarettes expose users to significant levels of hazardous chemicals that are also found in manufacturing products like styrofoam or acids. To arrive at their conclusion, they studied the urine of nearly 100 teens in the Bay Area – some of whom vaped, others who vaped and smoked, and another group who didn’t vape or smoke at all.
The research jibes with another study from the same university which found evidence of toxic metals like lead in the vapour of nearly 70 randomly sampled e-cigs. This study takes those findings a step further, discovering that not only are potential toxins present in the vapour of e-cigs; some of those toxins are also making their way into users’ bodies.
The scientists even found evidence of these toxins in the urine samples of teens who vaped using products without nicotine, suggesting that the problems do not stem from e-cigs’ most addictive component but instead from the heating process inherent to any vape pen.
What’s inside your vape pen
Most e-cigs or vape pens rely on a fairly simple technology that heats a liquid and spits out a vapour that is inhaled or “vaped.” But the devices can vary in many ways – something that makes them notoriously difficult to study since researchers have to find a way to account for all of the different variables that users might be tweaking.
One of the strengths of the latest study is that instead of looking at one particular type of vape pen, the researchers simply looked at regular vapers – regardless of the type of device they were using.
In most e-cigs, the e-liquid that’s used to fill the devices is usually comprised of four main ingredients: nicotine, a highly addictive stimulant drug; propylene glycol, a preservative found in ice cream and coffee-based drink; glycerine, a widely used liquid sweetener; and flavourings. (These ingredients differ a bit from those used in marijuana vape pens, where a host of unregulated ingredients may be used to dilute cannabis oil.)
Some e-cigs are customisable, allowing users to change everything from the amount of nicotine in the e-liquid to the temperature at which it is heated.
Other vape pens come in a simple, ready-to-use format, where most of the technology is hidden inside the device. Users can’t customise these devices; they’re typically geared toward beginners and some are made so they can be thrown away once their e-liquid runs out.
For the latest study, the researchers didn’t specify what type of e-cig users were vaping. But they did ask users whether or not their devices included nicotine – and some vapers were using flavored e-liquid that had either very low levels of nicotine or none at all.
The evidence of toxic metals in e-cigs is growing, and it includes some of the same compounds found in regular cigarettes
Despite the fact that vaping is often advertised as a potential tool to help adults quit smoking, it appears that young people are illegally taking up the habit as well.
That concerns researchers who study the devices and find that they come with their own set of risks, all of which are sharply elevated for young people whose bodies are still developing.
“Vaping among teens is my (and most public health professionals) biggest worry,” Ana Rule, a professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University and an author of a related study on e-cigs and teens, told Business Insider.
Rule authored a paper published last month which showed the vapour of e-cigs included toxic substances like lead, nickel, chromium, and manganese – often in concentrations that either approached, met, or exceeded the limits defined as safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Consistently inhaling high levels of these metals has been tied to health problems in the lungs, liver, immune system, heart, and brain, as well as some cancers, according to the US Department of Labour’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
The latest study found evidence of another set of potentially toxic chemicals, including acrylonitrile, acrolein, propylene oxide, acrylamide and crotonaldehyde – some of which are also found in conventional cigarettes. Most of these compounds are used in the manufacturing process for things like acids and fibres, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and have not been explicitly studied in humans for their potentially disease-causing effects.
Still, many of them have been found to cause things like headaches, dizziness, nausea, upper respiratory tract irritation, and congestion. At least two were found to cause tumours in rodents, leading researchers to classify them as “probable human carcinogens.”
“Teenagers need to be warned that the vapour produced by e-cigarettes is not harmless water vapour, but actually contains some of the same toxic chemicals found in smoke from traditional cigarettes,” Mark Rubinstein, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and the lead author on the new study, said in a statement.