The findings, described in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine,intensify concern about the safety of electronic cigarettes, which have become increasingly popular.
“I think this is just one more piece of evidence amid a number of pieces of evidence that e-cigarettes are not absolutely safe,” says David Peyton, a chemistry professor at Portland State University who helped conduct the research.The e-cigarette industry immediately dismissed the findings, saying the measurements were made under unrealistic conditions.
E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid that contains nicotine to create a vapor that users inhale. They’re generally considered safer than regular cigarettes, because some research has suggested that the level of most toxicants in the vapor is much lower than the levels in smoke.
Some public health experts think vaping could prevent some people from starting to smoke traditional tobacco cigarettes and help some longtime smokers kick the habit.
But many health experts are also worried that so little is known about e-cigarettes, they may pose unknown risks. So Peyton and his colleagues decided to take a closer look at what’s in that vapor.
“We simulated vaping by drawing the vapor — the aerosol — into a syringe, sort of simulating the lungs,” Peyton says. That enabled the researchers to conduct a detailed chemical analysis of the vapor. They found something unexpected when the devices were dialed up to their highest settings.
“To our surprise, we found masked formaldehyde in the liquid droplet particles in the aerosol,” Peyton says.
He calls it “masked” formaldehyde because it’s in a slightly different form than regular formaldehyde — a form that could increase the likelihood it would get deposited in the lung. And the researchers didn’t just find a little of the toxicant.
And formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.Conley says the researchers found formaldehyde only when the e-cigarettes were cranked up to their highest voltage levels.
“If you hold the button on an e-cigarette for 100 seconds, you could potentially produce 100 times more formaldehyde than you would ever get from a cigarette,” Conley says. “But no human vaper would ever vape at that condition, because within one second their lungs would be incredibly uncomfortable.”
That’s because the vapor would be so hot. Conley compares it to overcooking a steak.
Peyton acknowledges that he found no formaldehyde when the e-cigarettes were set at low levels. But he says he thinks plenty of people use the high settings.So Peyton hopes the government will tightly regulate the electronic devices. The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of deciding just how strict it should be made.