Thousands of unknown chemicals discovered in e-cigarettes

BALTIMORE, Md. — E-cigarette aerosols contain literally thousands of unknown chemicals and substances left unmentioned by manufacturers, according to a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Scientists report this smorgasbord of substances includes industrial chemicals and caffeine, just to name a few.

Plenty of prior studies have attempted to analyze the content of e-cigarettes, but this is the first to use an advanced fingerprinting technique capable of identifying chemicals in both food and wastewater. Ultimately, researchers conclude that the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes remain largely a mystery. In other words, users should at least be aware that they are potentially exposing themselves to harmful substances.

“Existing research that compared e-cigarettes with normal cigarettes found that cigarette contaminants are much lower in e-cigarettes. The problem is that e-cigarette aerosols contain other completely uncharacterized chemicals that might have health risks that we don’t yet know about,” says senior study author Carsten Prasse, an assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins, in a university release. “More and more young people are using these e-cigarettes and they need to know what they’re being exposed to.”

What’s hiding in e-cigarette vapor?

Earlier e-cigarette research has focused on identifying the same hazardous chemicals found in traditional cigarettes. This time around, however, study authors cast a much wider chemical net.

The chemical fingerprinting technique utilized for this work is based on liquid chromatography/high-resolution mass spectrometry. This approach has never been used on vape samples before, and is usually used to search for organic compounds in wastewater, food and blood. Four popular vape products were tested: Mi-Salt, Vuse, Juul, and Blu. Vapes and e-cigarettes come in a variety of flavors, but for consistency’s sake researchers only focused on tobacco flavored liquid.

Thousands of unknown chemicals were found in the analyzed e-liquids, and even more compounds were seen in the aerosols. Notably, hydrocarbon-like compounds were observed. Those compounds usually only occur following combustion, something that e-cigarette manufacturers claim does not occur during vaping. For example, hydrocarbon compounds produced while smoking a regular cigarette are considered toxic.

“One of the main ways electronic cigarettes have been marketed is that they operate at temperatures below combustion, which would make them safer than traditional smoking,” explains lead study author Mina Tehrani, a postdoctoral fellow in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Our study shows that this novel fingerprinting approach can be applied to assess whether combustion-like processes are going on.”

Close to 2,000 chemicals were found, with the majority being unidentified. Among the small portion researchers were able to ID, six were determined to be potentially harmful, including three chemicals never before found in e-cigarettes. Study authors add they were quite surprised to see caffeine in two of the four analyzed brands.

“That might be giving smokers an extra kick that is not disclosed,” Tehrani speculates. “We wonder if they are adding it intentionally.”

Is vaping really the safer alternative?

Other identified chemicals include three of the industrial variety. One of those is a pesticide, while the other two are flavorings associated with possible toxic side-effects and respiratory irritation.

Prof. Prasse was actually motivated to conduct this research after speaking with a cousin who had recently quit regular cigarettes in favor of supposedly healthier e-cigarettes. Needless to say, that cousin will be receiving a copy of this research.

“People just need to know that they’re inhaling a very complex mixture of chemicals when they vape. And for a lot of these compounds we have no idea what they actually are,” he explains. “I have a problem with how vaping is being marketed as more healthy than smoking cigarettes. In my opinion we are just not at the point when we can really say that.”

While it still may be true that e-cigarettes are a healthier alternative to regular tobacco products, researchers point out that many young people vaping today never took up cigarettes in the first place. In such scenarios, e-cigarettes are just an unhealthy habit, not the lesser of two health hazards.

“There are millions of middle school and high-school students vaping that would not otherwise think of smoking,” study co-author Ana M. Rule, an expert in metals exposures from vaping with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, concludes. “For them there is no risk reduction, only increased risk.”

The study is published in Chemical Research in Toxicology.

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