Health & Wellbeing

New study finds e-cig vapor contains same free radicals found in cigarette smoke

A new study indicates e-cigarettes may not be the "healthy" option many believe them to be (Photo: Shutterstock)
A new study indicates e-cigarettes may not be the "healthy" option many believe them to be (Photo: Shutterstock)
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A new study indicates e-cigarettes may not be the "healthy" option many believe them to be (Photo: Shutterstock)
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A new study indicates e-cigarettes may not be the "healthy" option many believe them to be (Photo: Shutterstock)

Many people assume e-cigarettes are a healthier – or less unhealthy, at least – option than regular cigarettes, resulting in a rapid uptake in recent years. While the long-term effects of e-cigarettes are still unknown, research out of Johns Hopkins University has found that e-cigs may deliver a false sense of security along with their nicotine hit.

The research team from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that the vapor from e-cigarettes damages the immune systems of mice and also contains free radical chemicals previously thought to only exist in the smoke from tobacco and air pollutants, albeit at much lower levels – one percent of the 1014 free radicals found per puff in cigarette smoke.

"We were surprised by how high that number was, considering that e-cigarettes do not produce combustion products," says Thomas Sussan, PhD, lead author of the study. "Granted, it’s 100 times lower than cigarette smoke, but it’s still a high number of free radicals that can potentially damage cells."

For the Johns Hopkins study, mice were split into two groups. The first was put into an inhalation chamber and exposed to an amount of the vapor for two weeks that scientists say approximated human inhalation over that time. The other was the control group. After the fortnight, both were divided again into three groups and one from each received, via nasal drops, the bacteria responsible for pneumonia and sinusitis in humans, the second were dosed with Influenza A, while the third received nothing.

They found that the mice exposed to the bacteria or the virus were at a significantly higher risk of exhibiting a compromised immune response if they had been exposed to e-cigarette vapor. In some cases, mice exposed to the vapor and the virus died as a result.

"E-cigarette vapor alone produced mild effects on the lungs, including inflammation and protein damage," says Sussan. "However, when this exposure was followed by a bacterial or viral infection, the harmful effects of e-cigarette exposure became even more pronounced. The e-cigarette exposure inhibited the ability of mice to clear the bacteria from their lungs, and the viral infection led to increased weight loss and death indicative of an impaired immune response."

The study's findings are a concern given that, as the study also points out, although first marketed as a quitting aid (their vapor does contain nicotine even if it does smell like dime-store perfume), e-cigarettes are now gaining popularity with a teen market that has never previously smoked.

The e-cig market in 2013 in the United States was worth US$1.7 billion after they were first legalized in 2007 and is estimated to surpass tobacco in another decade. Many people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have also made the switch to "vaping" believing it to be a healthier alternative, which may indeed be the case.

But considering the size of the industry and the concern expressed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organisation (which made headlines by suggesting the products were not safe) and the European Respiratory Society, it is surprising that no in vivo animal studies have been done before.

The human studies, says the researchers, "are limited to very short-term responses". However, researchers from the University of California, Riverside, published a study in 2010 that came to a similar conclusion: e-cigarettes can cause health problems. If they cause the same number of health problems as regular cigarettes does seem unlikely given the toxic cocktail found in cigarette smoke, but more research obviously needs to be done in this area. Of course, the safest course of action would be to abstain from both regular and e-cigarettes.

The Johns Hopkins research was published in the journal PLOS ONE on February 4

Source: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

14 comments
Molly Colangelo
I hate it when my mice vape. Just say no when your mouse asks you if he can vape!
Ryan Rji
Wow 100 times lower levels than cigarettes? I knew I felt better for a reason. Love my Vape!
rutnerh
Inhaled vaporized nicotine contains few free radicals or oxidation products unless heated to high combustion temperatures. But additives to make the smoke visible may be more toxic without forming free radicals hence should be avoided since they give e cigs an undeserved bad rap. Ideal solution to e cig toxicity: volatilize nicotine applied to the heated pad as an alcohol solution that unfortunately will not produce visible vapes, but will give you the full benefits of smoking without any toxicity from oxidation products, tars etc. Nicotine is the ideal energizer and mood lifter well proven under stressful WWII conditions by GIs when smoking was nearly universal but not in foxholes when visible smoke or the glow of a cig could have been fatal.
David Brown
Which formula of fluid was used .... Who paid for the study .... Mouse lungs are somewhat different to human lungs [as is their immune systems]. Really, this is a BS study as it presents by this article. And by the way, drinking water can be lethal in large amounts [electrolyte depletion as seen in people living in hot environments]. Seriously Gizmag ......... Show us the science! If you get your facts in order and can compare more than two questionable studies, perhaps your bias would not be questioned by medical professionals ... for example, did you realize that humans create their own free radicals and some cleaning products and solvents introduce much more free radicals than cigarette smoke?] Do your homework and beware 'studies' that 1, compare cute little mice to people 2, follow the money for the studies and 3, evaluate and compare studies that drug companies and tobacco companies put out vs. independent studies that may indeed be more clinically relevant.
YukonJack
Free the radicals!
James Muller
I have been on dozens of e-cig sites and all of them have the disclaimer that their product is not marketed as a smoking cessation tool. according to said research a cigarette( with 4000 or so chemicals produced) creates 100 trillion free radicals, and e-cigs 1 trillion; how many free radicals in the smog filled air of L.A.? How many more free radicals than normal am I taking in? The comparisons they make are garbage. The mouse study results that are reported didn't disclose if mice in the non-vape group died or if all of them survived, or if mice even contract pneumonia naturally. Didn't even report how many mice were used. What if they only used 2 mice and 1 died, would they report an average of 50% death toll for vaping an contracting pneumonia. Ultimately, in 8 years of vapings' existence how many hospital visits have been attributed vaping? They complain there isn't enough evidence to say they are safe(r), but it looks like the lack of evidence of it's danger says enough. Anyone have a ladder, this soap box is too high to jump down from.
owlbeyou
To each, his own. If e-smokes do not have apparent ill effects on your daily functioning and health, then by all means do it by choice. I smoke both e-cigs and analog (2 or 3 a day, a lot less than before) and have noticed much less sputum, or none at all, as well as not feeling as winded when exercising. With regards to smoking (any) out on the porch because your partner demands it, that's ok, but just remember that a lit candle (paraffin, a petroleum product) is probably just as or more harmful than cigarettes, but I still love the atmosphere of a candle-lit dinner, etc. Things need to be kept in perspective. It comes down to concentration/dilution and toxicity levels, of everything we ingest. If there are young children in the house, that should be taken into account.
Anne Ominous
What rather ticks me off, is that government decided first that kids shouldn't be smoking, then adults... and implemented their "social engineering" plan via taxes and regulations. There would not BE any "vaping" if regular cigarettes had not been so heavily taxed and regulated. And now they want to regulate those. I think it's great if people are healthier. I just don't believe it's even close to government's proper role to play nanny in that way. Discover harmful things. Sure. Report them. Sure. But for the most part let people decide what they want to do with their own bodies.
Rann Xeroxx
The purpose of this study is to.. 1) Regulate e-cigs, control distribution 2) Tax e-cigs Who benefits from both? Government, who is addicted to tobacco taxes to the tune of hundreds of billions, and tobacco companies who would like to see e-cigs cost as much as their products. Who looses? Everyone else.
Daishi
@Anne Ominous and what happens when people get lung cancer and government health care is billed with the high costs of their treatment? Hospitals and government can't just let people with cancer die so the more fitting option is to tax cigarettes and use that money to pay for all the people with lung cancer that don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting around to pay cash for their own medical bills. Just like if you drive recklessly your car insurance is more expensive if you smoke cigarettes you pay heavy taxes on them to help subsidize the cost of your medical expenses later on. The taxes should be high enough that nonsmokers aren't left footing the costs.
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