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Some E-Cigarettes Expose Users to Carcinogens, New Research Suggests

May 6, 2014

Electronic cigarettes are rapidly growing in popularity because they are perceived to be healthier than regular cigarettes. Since users do not actually light up and smoke them, they are avoiding over 60 carcinogens present in regular cigarettes. New research, however, has found that some e-cigarettes get so hot that they can also produce some of the carcinogens present in normal cigarettes, and at comparable levels. According to the New York Times, a study that will be published this month in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research has found that tank systems, the high-power e-cigarettes, can produce the known carcinogen formaldehyde. The study found that formaldehyde is formed when the ingredients are exposed to high temperatures. NYT reports that a second study had similar findings, and is also being prepared for submission to the same journal.

Both of the studies looked at tank systems, which are larger e-cigarettes running on batteries that can vary in voltage. Unlike disposable e-cigarettes, which often look and feel like regular cigarettes, these devices resemble fountain pens or small flashlights. Tank systems have enough power to vaporize liquid nicotine vapor quickly, resulting in a big nicotine boost.

Dr. Maciej L. Goniewicz, lead author of the first study and an assistant professor of oncology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, said that people using tank systems “want more nicotine, but the problem is they’re also getting more toxicants.” the NYT reports.

The findings highlight how e-cigarettes may have negative impacts on health, as the multibillion-dollar business rapidly evolves. Meanwhile, the NYT reports, regulators are slow to keep up. Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed new rules on e-cigarettes, but the agency has mostly focused on the ingredients that go into the products rather than what comes out of them. “Looking at ingredients is one thing, and very important,” said Dr. Goniewicz “But to have a comprehensive picture, you have to look at the vapor.”

The second study also focused on heat generated by tank systems. In particular, the study looked at the effects of “dripping”, which is when users trickle drops of e-liquid directly onto the heating element rather than using it to fill their tank. The process creates more potent and greater amounts of vapor. According to lead researcher Dr. Alan Shihadeh, dripping creates formaldehydes and related toxins that “approach the concentration in cigarettes,”

Both studies found that when intense heat is applied, the composition of the e-liquids changes and creates new chemicals. Researchers say an important point to note is that this reaction does not only apply to the liquid nicotine, but to vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol, two other ingredients present in most e-cigarettes.

“This finding suggests that in certain conditions, E.C.s might expose their users to the same or even higher levels of carcinogenic formaldehyde as tobacco smoke,” Goniewicz’s study stated.

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