E-cigarettes still expose users to free radicals, study finds

E-cigarettes are growing in popularity by the day.

Governments, and many non-smokers, want them to face the same tough regulations as smoking. “No,” cry e-cigarette users, who argue forcefully their new method of nicotine delivery is vastly safer.

It’s turning out that there’s merit to both arguments. E-cigarettes don’t pose the same threat as traditional cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean they are safe.

New research raises a red flag, suggesting one dangerous family of chemicals – free radicals – are very present in those thick, white clouds of vapour that ever more frequently waft across your path as you go about your daily business.

“Free radicals are unstable molecules that are produced, generally, under high temperatures,” says John Richie, a professor of public health sciences and pharmacology at Penn State University.

“Certain radicals, particularly the highly reactive ones, are very disruptive and dangerous for living cells. These free radicals in cigarette smoke are thought to play a major role in the development of smoking-related diseases.”

A woman wearing a protective mask has her picture taken just after a flag-raising ceremony amid heavy smog at the Tiananmen Square, after the city issued its first ever "red alert" for air pollution, in Beijing December 9, 2015.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A woman wearing a protective mask has her picture taken just after a flag-raising ceremony amid heavy smog at the Tiananmen Square, after the city issued its first ever “red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing December 9, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Richie and his research team have, indeed, found free radicals in e-cigarette vapour. The levels are significantly lower than in traditional cigarettes, but he feels that caution is necessary.

“The levels in cigarette smoke are very, very high. So the fact that they’re lower in these e-cigarette aerosols is great. But levels are still quite high. What we need to do now is figure out the exact nature of these radicals, to understand how dangerous they might be.”

Preliminary results suggest free radical levels in e-cigarette vapours are 100 to 1,000 times less than conventional tobacco smoke. That’s a huge difference.

But that doesn’t make them clean.

“Measurements of free radicals in highly polluted cities have been made, and the levels that we’re finding in e-cigarette aerosols are somewhat higher than what you might find in a very polluted city.”

Including Beijing, China, the current gold standard for urban air pollution?

“We’re probably in that ball park, or higher,” Richie says.

The next stage of the research will be a more specific classification of the risks.

“We know the number of radicals, but we have to find out specifically what their composition is. Then we can conduct studies with live cells to determine what damage they might be doing.”

While many non-smokers are bothered by second-hand tobacco smoke, the study did find that the vapour from e-cigarettes poses less of a threat than the smoke from cigarettes.

“In cigarette smoke, there are over 7,000 chemicals, many of which are irritants, carcinogens and toxins. We have far, far fewer numbers in e-cigarette vapour. In general, I think one would find it far less irritating, and probably far less dangerous,” he notes.

“On the other hand, nobody likes to be exposed to things that they haven’t chosen to be exposed to.”

Richie also sounds a warning that vaping might, counter-intuitively, be helping to create new tobacco users.

“E-cigarettes could potentially be a gateway for younger people to start smoking, because they think it’s not as dangerous. And the next thing you know, they’re addicted to nicotine and they’re smoking cigarettes.

“It’s still maintaining a nicotine addiction, and is that a good thing? It’s a hot-button issue, even within the public health community.”

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