Brain and Body

Study Reveals Possible Hidden Danger of Vaping

December 14, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

Man "vaping" (using an e-cigarette).
Photo credit: Vaping260/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Electronic cigarettes, also sometimes referred to as vaporizers, may not be the healthy alternatives marketing campaigns would have you believe.

Often advertised as healthier alternatives to smoking tobacco, electronic cigarette devices have risen in popularity, particularly among young people, but the perception may actually be an illusion as new research suggest the cutting-edge smoking gadget might have hidden dangers.

"There's a perception that e-cigarettes are healthier than regular cigarettes, or at least not as harmful as regular cigarettes," said John P. Richie Jr., a professor of public health sciences and pharmacology at Pennsylvania State University. "While e-cigarette vapor does not contain many of the toxic substances that are known to be present in cigarette smoke, it's still important for us to figure out and to minimize the potential dangers that are associated with e-cigarettes."

According to a report from researchers at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine, electronic cigarettes produce highly-reactive free radicals — molecules associated with cell damage and cancer — and may pose a health risk to users.

The new findings can be particularly concerning as e-cigarettes are increasingly being used by young adults as well as current and former smokers.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than 20 percent of young adults have tried e-cigarettes and several studies suggest rapid increases in e-cigarette use.

Despite their growing popularity in the last several years, very little is known about the toxic substances produced by e-cigarettes and their health effects, according to the university.

The battery-operated devices deliver nicotine in water vapor instead of by burning tobacco. Instead of smoke, e-cigarettes produce aerosols — tiny liquid particles suspended in a puff of air.

According to the university, previous studies have found low levels of aldehydes, chemical compounds that can cause oxidative stress and cell damage, in e-cigarette "smoke." But until now, no one has looked for free radicals, the main source of oxidative stress from cigarette smoke. Highly reactive free radicals are a leading culprit in smoking-related cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In the recent study researchers measured free radicals in e-cigarette aerosols and found that the devices produce high levels of highly reactive free radicals that fall in the range of 1,000- to 100-times less than levels in regular cigarettes.

"This is the first study that demonstrates the fact that we have these highly reactive agents in e-cigarette aerosols," Richie said. "The levels of radicals that we're seeing are more than what you might get from a heavily air-polluted area but less than what you might find in cigarette smoke."

Further research is needed to determine the health effects of highly reactive free radicals from e-cigarettes, Richie said.

"This is the first step," he said. "The identification of these radicals in the aerosols means that we can't just say e-cigarettes are safe because they don't contain tobacco. They are potentially harmful. Now we have to find out what the harmful effects are."

The results of the study were published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.

Richie is currently conducting studies to carefully measure total numbers of free radicals in e-cigarette aerosols and to identify their chemical structures.

“That will help us interpret the data better to know how dangerous they are," he said.

Based on materials provided by Penn State University

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