Thousands of unknown chemicals discovered in electronic cigarettes

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BALTIMORE, Maryland – Aerosols for e-cigarettes contain literally thousands of unknown chemicals and substances not mentioned by manufacturers, according to a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Scientists report that this assortment of substances includes industrial chemicals and caffeine, to name a few.

Many previous studies have attempted to analyze the content of electronic cigarettes, but this is the first to use an advanced fingerprinting technique capable of identifying chemicals in food and wastewater. Ultimately, the researchers conclude that the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes remain largely a mystery. In other words, users should at least be aware that they are potentially exposing themselves to harmful substances.

“Existing research comparing electronic cigarettes to normal cigarettes has revealed that cigarette contaminants are much lower in electronic cigarettes. The problem is that e-cigarette aerosols contain other completely uncharacterized chemicals that could pose health risks that we don’t yet know about, ”says lead study author Carsten Prasse, assistant professor of health. environment and engineering at Johns Hopkins, at a university. Release. “More and more young people are using these electronic cigarettes and they need to know what they are exposed to. “

What is hiding in the vapor of the electronic cigarette?

Previous research on electronic cigarettes has focused on identifying the same dangerous chemicals that are found in traditional cigarettes. This time around, however, the study’s authors cast a much wider chemical net.

The chemical fingerprint technique used for this work is based on high resolution liquid chromatography / mass spectrometry. This approach has never been used on vaping samples before and is typically used to test for organic compounds in wastewater, food, and blood. Four popular vape products were tested: Mi-Salt, Vuse, Juul and Blu. Vapers and e-cigarettes come in a variety of flavors, but for consistency, researchers have focused only on tobacco-flavored liquids.

Thousands of unknown chemicals were found in the e-liquids analyzed, and even more compounds were observed in aerosols. In particular, compounds of the hydrocarbon type have been observed. These compounds usually only occur after burning, which e-cigarette manufacturers say does not occur during vaping. For example, the hydrocarbon compounds produced by smoking a regular cigarette are considered toxic.

“One of the main ways that electronic cigarettes have been marketed is that they operate at temperatures below combustion, which would make them safer than traditional smoking,” says Mina Tehrani, lead author of the study, postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Our study shows that this new fingerprinting approach can be applied to assess whether combustion-like processes are underway.”

Nearly 2,000 chemicals have been found, the majority unidentified. Among the small portion of researchers who were able to identify, six were determined to be potentially harmful, including three chemicals never before found in electronic cigarettes. The study authors add that they were quite surprised to see caffeine in two of the four brands analyzed.

“It could give smokers an extra kick that is not disclosed,” Tehrani speculates. “We wonder if they are adding it intentionally.”

Is vaping really the safest alternative?

Other identified chemicals include three of the industrial variety. One of them is a pesticide, while the other two are aromas associated with possible toxic side effects and respiratory irritation.

Professor Prasse was actually motivated to conduct this research after speaking with a cousin who had recently quit smoking regular cigarettes in favor of supposedly healthier e-cigarettes. Needless to say, this cousin will receive a copy of this research.

“People just need to know that they are inhaling a very complex mixture of chemicals when they vape. And for a lot of these compounds, we have no idea what they really are, ”he explains. “I have a problem with the way vaping is presented as being healthier than smoking cigarettes. In my opinion, we are just not at the point where we can really say that. “

While it’s still true that e-cigarettes are a healthier alternative to regular tobacco products, researchers point out that many young people vaping today have never started smoking cigarettes. In such scenarios, e-cigarettes are just one unhealthy habit, not the lesser of two health risks.

“There are millions of middle and high school students who vape who wouldn’t otherwise think of smoking,” concludes study co-author Ana M. Rule, expert on metal exposures from Johns-style vaping Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “For them, there is no reduction in risk, only increased risk.”

The study is published in Chemical research in toxicology.

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