SAN FRANCISCO — Electronic cigarette users are inhaling potentially dangerous levels of a synthetic cooling agent used to mimic mint and menthol flavors, a new study warns.
Scientists say they know little about the content of synthetic coolants in e-cigarettes or their health risks, but this isn’t slowing their popularity among smokers looking for an alternative to tobacco products. The research revealed that e-cigarette makers are using the synthetic agents WS-3 and WS-23 in their products at levels higher than what the World Health Organization considers safe.
Suppliers have recently begun marketing synthetic additives that provide the cooling effect without the minty flavor. Researchers from Duke University School of Medicine presented their findings at the American Thoracic Society’s international conference (ATS 2022) in San Francisco.
“In a prior study we discovered that a synthetic cooling agent, WS-3, was added to Juul electronic cigarettes marketed in Europe,” says study author Professor Sven Jordt in a media release.
“Juul was the most popular e-cigarette brand at the time. This led us to explore whether synthetic cooling agents are also added to electronic cigarettes marketed in the United States.”
These chemicals are present in multiple flavors
The professor, who works in anesthesiology, pharmacology, and cancer biology at Duke began the study with his colleagues by searching for terms like “kool/cool” and “ice” on websites that sell e-liquid and looking to see if companies sold the cooling agents WS-3 and WS-23.
They focused their research on both the ice and non-ice varieties of Puffbar, the most popular brand in the U.S., which is a disposable e-cigarette that evades the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations on “pod” devices with exchangeable cartridges like Juul.
By using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to identify substances within samples, the team was able characterize e-liquids and synthetic coolants. They then calculated the margin of exposure (MOE) to determine the risk of synthetic coolants in e-cigarettes. An MOE of 100 means the user’s exposure is 100 times lower than levels proven to cause toxic effects in the organs of animals.
The scientists detected WS-3 in 24 of the 25 refill e-liquids they identified. Additionally, 13 out of 14 disposable Puffbar flavor varieties contained WS-23, with five of 14 also containing WS-3, in both ice and non-ice flavors.
Synthetic cooling agents were found not only in mint and menthol-flavored products, but in fruit and candy-flavored products, including Puffbar and other disposable e-cigarettes. Puffbar markets flavors such as Mango, Vanilla, Berry, and many other sweet flavors popular with young people.
E-cigs could cause ‘organ toxicity’
Scientists studying harmful substances know that MOE below 100 indicates increased risk. Alarmingly, MOEs for WS-23 in 11 out of 13 Puffbar products were less than 100 whether the team modeled for occasional or heavy use.
“When the MOE is below 100, regulators such as the FDA or World Health Organization should review the safety of the product and advise manufacturers about steps to make the product safe to use,” Dr. Jordt says.
“Our measurements and calculations demonstrate that e-cigarette users inhale WS-3 and WS-23 at levels higher than those considered safe by WHO, with the potential to cause organ toxicity,” the researcher continues. “Regulators such as FDA should consider reviewing product safety of Puffbar vaping devices and the e-cigarette refill liquids we tested.”
“WS-3 and WS-23 are regulated by the FDA as food additives, but not for inhalation. E-cigarette manufacturers are ‘flying blind’ by adding these chemicals,” the researchers say.
In April 2021, the Biden Administration announced its decision to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
“Flavored tobacco products have been a key strategy in Big Tobacco’s marketing arsenal to initiate smokers at an early age,” adds ATS officials in a statement.
South West News Service writer Danny Halpin contributed to this report.