High Levels of ‘Hidden’ Formaldehyde Found in E-Cigarettes

Close up of a woman inhaling from an electronic cigarette

The notion that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes may be going up in formaldehyde-laden smoke.

That is the takeaway from a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at e-cigs and found disturbing news about the product that has created a $1.5-billion industry: High levels of formaldehyde are created by the vaping process that produce about 15 times the levels produced by tobacco cigarettes.

The burgeoning industry with the unregulated product has been criticized because the manufacturers haven’t been totally transparent about what’s inside the battery-powered liquid-burning devices that have had a huge impact on young people.

Though teens should know this from high school science class, formaldehyde is used for embalming the dead and is a known carcinogen. That doesn’t make it healthy—not for living people, anyway.

Could Be More Dangerous Than Regular Cigarettes

Researchers found high levels of formaldehyde while vaping popular tank-system e-cigs. The devices convert liquid nicotine, often marketed with fruity flavors, into a mist or vapor the user inhales. Researchers vaped 3 milligrams of liquid at high voltage (5.0 V) and the e-cigs generated a “hidden” 14 milligrams of formaldehyde-releasing agents to be inhaled by the smoker, according to researchers.

By comparison, a tobacco cigarette generates about 0.15 milligrams of formaldehyde, which is equal to about 3 milligrams in a 20-pack.

In many samples of the aerosol in vaped e-cigs, formaldehyde-releasing agents comprised more than 2 percent of the total solvent molecules. If inhaling formaldehyde-releasing agents carries the same risk as the risk associated with inhaling gaseous formaldehyde, a 150-pound person could be five to 15 times more susceptible to cancer risk over long-term vaping vs. long-term smoking of a pack a day, the researchers concluded.

Might Be Even Worse Than Study Shows

“This estimate is conservative because we did not collect all of the aerosolized liquid, nor did we collect any gas-phase formaldehyde,” researchers said. “Formaldehyde-releasing agents may deposit more efficiently in the respiratory tract than gaseous formaldehyde, and so they could carry a higher slope factor for cancer.”

In addition to embalming the dead, formaldehyde can be found in pressed-wood products and fuel-burning appliances, as well as cigarette smoke. According to the National Cancer Institute, it has been linked with leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer. It is one of many chemicals in traditional tobacco cigarettes.

Unclear is whether formaldehyde in cigarettes is as significant a contributor to cancer as some think, or whether the formaldehyde-releasing agents behave similarly, or perhaps worse, to gaseous formaldehyde in the respiratory tract.

The study used a variable-voltage battery. At low voltage (3.3 V), researchers did not detect the formation of formaldehyde-releasing agents. The formaldehyde was released at high voltage (5.0 V).

A Big Audience

Bloomberg Industries has projected the sales of e-cigarettes could surpass tobacco products by 2023.

Of great concern is that the product has found an audience with young people. According to the 2014 Monitoring the Future survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost 9 percent of eighth-graders had used an e-cigarette in the previous month; among high school sophomores and seniors it was 16.2 and 17.1 percent.

Scientists do not yet know the long-term effects of e-cigs because they are so new to the market, but coupled with the knowledge that formaldehyde is not healthy, the latest study could be a game-changer in the perception of e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking tobacco leaves.

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