Two new studies have turned out some scary findings about e-cigarettes. The first one, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that e-cigarette vapor can harbor hidden formaldehyde — a known carcinogen — at levels up to 15 times greater than regular cigarettes. "We discovered this form of formaldehyde hidden in the tiny liquid droplets of the vapor, where it hadn't been detected before," says lead researcher David Peyton, a chemistry professor at Portland State University in Oregon. "It has the potential to distribute deeply into the lungs and collect there."
The second study showed that e-cigarette vapors directly harm human lung tissue. Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York found that when the aerosol produced by heated liquid nicotine hits lung cells, it churns up disease-causing free radicals and triggers marked inflammation; they also found the presence of up to six times the level of heavy metals, like copper. What's more, they discovered that various flavor additives, which are often added to e-cigs, cause additional oxidative damage to lung tissue. This isn't after years of e-cig use, either. The negative effects "occurred after a few days of vaping," he says. "Chronic exposure may lead to even more damage."
These findings add to the fast-amassing stack of research revealing the many potential hazards of e-cigarettes. Since these smokeless devices are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, they can contain any number of toxins, carcinogens, or other mystery chemicals. And because e-cigarettes are so new, the long-term health consequences of using them are unknown.
Even so, many people assume that, compared to regular tobacco cigarettes, e-cigs are the lesser of two evils. But that's not necessarily the case, says Dr. Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Center and a spokesman for the American Association for Cancer Research. "In the oncology community, we feel they are both evil," he says. "The big concern with e-cigarettes is lung tissue damage. Regular cigarette smoke contains 60 to 80 known carcinogens, which makes it very bad for the lungs too. However, hot e-cigarette vapor going straight to the lungs can cause actual burning and injury. It's a different type of damage — but it's still significant."
And that's just their immediate impact. "We still don't know the long-term effects that e-cigarettes can have on the body," Herbst says. "There is still so much to learn about them."
Herbst also thinks e-cigs are an unproven and even detrimental smoking cessation tool — which is, of course, a huge reason why people puff on them. "I treat people with lung cancer, so certainly my goal is to stop people from smoking," he says. "But these devices deliver such high concentrations of nicotine that they get people very addicted to the drug. If you need help with smoking cessation, there are other, FDA-approved forms of nicotine, such patches or lozenges, that would much better than e-cigarettes."
And because e-cigs crank out so much nicotine, Herbst also fears that they can be a gateway to tobacco cigarettes. "E-cigarettes are very expensive, so we worry that people will start on them, get addicted to nicotine, and then move on to regular cigarettes, which are generally less expensive and easier to get," he adds.