Did you know that the sales of e-cigarettes among teens doubled in the period between 2011 and 2012? There are now 4 million Americans who use these. But the big question that everybody is asking about this billion-dollar craze is whether these new cigarettes are really safer and healthier than old-fashioned tobacco cigarettes.
The main problem is that there has been very little research and, of course, it is probably far too soon to assess the longterm health risks. But there is one alarming fact that cannot be brushed under the carpet in spite of all the hype. It is this: these cigarettes contain nicotine and flavored chemicals — no less than 7,000 flavors have been developed!
Harmful chemicals may damage the lungs
One of these chemicals is called diacetyl and it has been found in almost 75% of the e-cigarettes studied by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They found that this chemical caused bronchial and other lung diseases in workers who were making popcorn with a vanilla flavour which contained it. This condition is called “popcorn lung” because these workers were inhaling it as they made the popcorn.
When you use these cigarettes, there is no smoke because the battery does all the heating — there is no need for combustion. There is only “vaping,” that is, you are producing vapor as you inhale and exhale. Sounds pretty harmless but the whole process and the use of chemicals is worrying some doctors.
Why e-cigarettes may be harmful
Although there seems to be enough evidence to show that the lack of smoke produces fewer harmful chemicals than normal cigarettes, doubts remain.
What actually goes into the e-cigarettes seems to vary enormously. After all, there are 250 brands already on the market! The most alarming fact is that e-cigarettes remain unregulated and that means there is no guarantee at all in regards to their purity and safety. In addition, nobody knows what the longterm effects of the vapor may be.
“As for long-term effects, we don’t know what happens when you breathe the vapor into the lungs regularly.” — Thomas Glynn, Director of Science at the American Cancer Society.
The harmful effects of nicotine
Normal cigarette smoking causes about 400,000 deaths in America annually. The burning of tobacco means the smoker is inhaling tar and other toxic chemicals which can lead to heart disease and cancer. Now, the number of chemicals in e-cigarettes is infinitely smaller (9 versus 11,000 according to the FDA), so that would suggest they are indeed much safer. But the nicotine is still in there and that leads to addiction, just as with normal cigarettes. It is so addictive that you can get withdrawal symptoms which can lead to depression and anxiety. The nicotine can also damage the heart and arteries in the long term.
Other harmful chemicals in the mix
The nicotine dose is mixed with propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine. While these are not officially carcinogens, they are believed to be “potentially carcinogenic,” as described in a French report on e-cigarettes. The French government is thinking of introducing a public ban on smoking these devices, including limiting their use to adults only. They are concerned about the health effects and the side stream smoke for those unlucky enough to be near someone who is vaping.
Up to 42 chemicals have been identified in e-cigarettes. You can see the full list here. They include some rather notorious chemicals which we spend a lot of time avoiding because they are toxic and they may lead to cancer. This includes benzene, lead, nickel, toluene, and formaldehyde.
“In addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, they also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and as our study shows, flavoring chemicals that can cause lung damage.” — David Christiani, Elkan Blout Professor of Environmental Genetics and co-author of the Harvard study.
When e-cigarettes hit the scene, they were regarded as harmless gadgets and a safer option to smoking. This is only partially true, as we have seen above, and their use should be better controlled for the sake of all our lungs.
Featured photo credit: Vaping vs Smoking/ Vaping360 via flickr.com