Regulators may have had a change of heart about the danger of using e-cigarettes, but scientists would beg to differ. A newly published New York University School of Medicine study indicates that vaping may put you at a “higher risk” of cancer and heart disease.
Mice subjected to the equivalent of “light” e-cigarette smoking for 10 years (12 weeks in reality) suffered DNA damage to their bladders, hearts, and lungs, in addition to limiting both DNA repair and lung proteins. In short: nicotine can become a carcinogen in your body regardless of how it’s transmitted.
The study isn’t completely shocking when researchers have identified other harmful chemicals. And it’s not conclusive, either. While the testing shows that e-cigarettes are harmful, the highly compressed smoking exposure is far from what you’d see in real life. The study does also acknowledge that the tobacco nitrosamines (known carcinogens) found in body fluids of e-cigarette users are 97 percent lower than in cigarette smokers (but states this is “significantly higher than in nonsmokers”). This puts e-cigarette users on a similar level to users of nicotine patches.
You may not see more definitive results until additional animal testing in a year, and much longer than that for humans. Study author Moon-shong Tang also noted to Bloomberg that it’s not clear whether conventional cigarettes or e-cigarettes would be more harmful.
An e-cig with only one heating coil operated at 3.8 volts was found to emit 0.46 micrograms of acrolein — a severe eye and respiratory irritant — per puff in the first five puffs, while the coil was heating up. But when the heat got steady, the e-cig emitted much more: 8.7 micrograms per puff. The amount of acrolein released is still much less than a regular cigarette, which delivers 400 to 650 micrograms. About 20 puffs on an e-cigarette release 90 to 100 micrograms in comparison.
“Advocates of e-cigarettes say emissions are much lower than from conventional cigarettes, so you’re better off using e-cigarettes,” Berkeley Lab researcher and study co-author Hugo Destaillats said in a statement. “I would say, that may be true for certain users — for example, long-time smokers that cannot quit — but the problem is, it doesn’t mean that they’re healthy. Regular cigarettes are super unhealthy. E-cigarettes are just unhealthy.”
The use of e-cigarettes has spiked: the percentage of US adults who smoke e-cigs rose to 8.5 percent in 2013 from 3.3 percent in 2010. And in 2014, nearly 13 percent of adults said they tried electronic cigarettes, according to the CDC. Though some experts think e-cigs are a good alternative for regular cigarette smokers, health officials are particularly concerned about how popular vapes are among teenagers. Many e-cigs contain nicotine and could expose children to the addictive chemical. In 2015, three million American teens used e-cigs. But much more research is needed to actually understand how harmful they are.
The paper’s goal was to learn more about the risks of e-cigarettes, so that manufacturers, users, and regulators can try to minimize the harm the electronic cigarettes pose. “Understanding how these compounds are formed is very important,” Destaillats said. “One reason is for regulatory purposes, and the second is, if you want to manufacture a less harmful e-cigarette, you have to understand what the main sources of these carcinogens are.”
While there have been studies suggesting that e-cigs are probably less harmful, the study indicates that some nitrosation of nicotine occurs in the human body (in cigarettes it happens in the tobacco curing process). So, theoretically, you’re still facing some of the same dangers. Any “safety” therefore may come from the reduced level of exposure. The findings also support bids to regulate e-cigarettes based on their tobacco-like effects, such as the FDA’s former approach.