Are E-Cigarettes Truly Harmless?

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By: Dylan Lenzen

In recent years, e-cigarettes, or vaporizers, have been increasingly marketed as a safe alternative to smoking. E-cigarettes are classified as electronic nicotine delivery systems and operate through the use of a heating element that heats fluid contained in the device and creates a vapor which is then inhaled by the user. While research has not yet been able to conclude for certain if using e-cigarettes is safer than smoking tobacco, there may be reason to believe that they pose a risk to public health.

For those using e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking, or in an effort to quit smoking all together, there is some information that should be considered. While the nicotine-containing fluid that is converted to vapor contains far fewer toxic ingredients than tobacco products, e-cigarettes are not yet regulated by the FDA and much about the devices remain unknown. There may be less overall toxins in e-cigarette vapor, but the concentrations of certain dangerous compounds that users can be exposed to have caused concern among scientists. Just recently, a study showed that levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen generated by vaporizers at a high voltage greatly exceeds that contained in traditional cigarettes.

Beyond the chemicals produced through the use of e-cigarettes, the vapor particles they produce are similar to the size found in traditional cigarette smoke. This allows them to reach small, deep airways much like cigarette smoke. These particles could also pose a risk to those exposed to secondhand vapor. Exposure to secondhand vapor is also more likely than tobacco smoke as there is currently little regulation of e-cigarette use, allowing many to use them indoors where traditional smoking bans exist. One study has shown that among other nanoparticles, a high concentration of heavy metals has been observed in e-cigarette vapor. The same study suggested these concentrations were derived from the heating element that consists of nickel-chromium wire, coated in silver, and soldered with tin.

Another possible risk associated with e-cigarettes concerns the nicotine refill cartridges, which can be unintentionally consumed, particularly by children. The number of these unintentional consumption events has been increasing in recent years according to a study by tobacco control. The amount of nicotine in some refill solutions could potentially be lethal to children.

While e-cigarettes could potentially be safer than traditional cigarettes, they certainly deserve regulatory action in order to ensure that human health is protected. For those that are looking for a safe method to quit smoking, e-cigarettes should be avoided until definitive research concludes they are safe. Until that time, it is probably wise to utilize other methods that are FDA-approved.

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