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E-Cigarette Liquid Linked to Increased Risk of Viral Lung Infections, Study Shows

Jan 15, 2015

Researchers at National Jewish Health in Denver have found that the liquid in electronic cigarettes can damage cells lining the lungs and increase the risk of infections, even without nicotine.

"We took cells from the airways of young, healthy non-smokers and exposed them to the liquid or vapors from e-cigarettes in the lab and in as little as 10 minutes we saw a dramatic reaction," said lead author Dr. Hong Wei Chu, MD, director of the Basic Science Section at National Jewish Health. "The cells showed a strong pro-inflammatory response and the risk of viral infection in those cells rose significantly,"

E-cigarettes have quickly become popular, especially in young people. Less than 2 percent of adults had tried e-cigarettes in 2010. This number increased more than 620 percent to 40 million last year. The product is also becoming increasingly popular among children and teenagers.

David Tinkelman, MD, medical director of health initiatives at National Jewish Health, said "In the last 4 or 5 years, it’s exploded. Unfortunately, the science behind e-cigarettes has not exploded at the same time. We still don’t fully understand the effects e-cigarettes have on our bodies or the risks they might pose,"

Researchers exposed healthy human cells to e-cigarette vapor using a machine that applied suction to the product, simulating smoking. The epithelial cells were damaged almost immediately upon vapor exposure. "Epithelial cells are the first line of defense in our airways and they protect our bodies from anything dangerous we might inhale," said co-author Qun Qu, MD, PhD. "Once those cells were exposed to the liquid or vapors from e-cigarettes, it triggered a strong immune response," In particular, the researchers observed an increase in the level of IL-6 protein, indicating an immune response. "The epithelial cells were damaged after only a few minutes of exposure and the immune response lasted up to 48 hours," Dr. Chu said. "That indicates to us that these cells responded quickly to the presence of e-cigarette liquid or vapors by producing IL-6 protein, which contributes to the lung inflammation and injury,"

These findings add to a growing body of research showing that e-cigarettes carry health risks. Experts worry that children and teenagers who believe they are safe will gain access to them. "Many of these products are marketed to young consumers with flavors like bubblegum or cherry, and when you flavor them in that way, not only are they more appealing but young people might falsely assume they are safe to use," said Dr. Tinkelman, according to National Jewish Health. "That is an inherently dangerous situation when you’re talking about use among children and teenagers, especially."

"We have provided strong evidence that the liquid used in e-cigarettes, whether it contains nicotine or not, has negative effects on the airways and on the lungs," said Dr. Chu, according to National Jewish Health. "The problem is, these products aren’t regulated and there are no standards to control how much nicotine or other chemicals they contain. I think e-cigarettes could prove dangerous, especially with long-term consumption," he said.

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