Humans and Health

E-Cigarettes: The Latest In A Wealth Of Conflicting Advice

E-cigarettes are used by people who smoke, either as an aide to quit or as a direct replacement for traditional cigarettes. It is a long held belief by those who use e-cigarettes that, since they do not have the tar and many other harmful substances held in them present in traditional cigarettes, that despite the obvious nicotine addiction, they must be relatively harmless or at least less damaging to your health.

There have been a lot of confusing messages over the years regarding the safety of e-cigarettes; it has been claimed by Public Health England in 2015 that they are estimated to be around 95% less harmful than cigarettes. However, they have also been linked to cell and DNA damage that can lead to cancer, with some scientists claiming that they are no safer than tobacco. So what is the latest conclusion to the health concern that seems to be forever changing?

The latest study has come from University College London (UCL), which has analysed the saliva and urine of “long-term” e-cigarette users for the presence of 26 different harmful chemicals. They found that for the ex-smokers who used the e-cigarettes for at least six months, the levels of these chemicals were lower than when they had smoked tobacco.

“It is important to recognise that this study once again viewed the e-cigarettes as a means to quit smoking altogether”

They looked at participants who used them as a replacement for tobacco for 17 months and actually found that one chemical, which has been linked to lung cancer, was found to be 97% lower in those who used e-cigarettes than those who smoked tobacco. The participants were also compared to a group who used a nicotine replacement therapy, such as nicotine patches, and found that the results were comparable.

This is fantastic news for e-cigarette users, that they are probably indeed lowering the risk to their health by using a “vape” instead of traditional cigarettes. However, it is important to recognise that this study once again viewed the e-cigarettes as a means to quit smoking altogether. Their findings will not reflect what will happen to a person if they smoke an e-cigarette to the equivalent of 40 cigarettes a day for 40 years for example, as many have done with tobacco.

There is also concern about some of the metal components inside the device. E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid on a metal filament so that it vaporises, and this vapour is inhaled by the user. The metal filaments are heated and nanoparticles can escape into the liquid to end up in your lungs. The damage you may incur from these nanoparticles with long term use is unclear, but they have been linked with mitochondrial stress and DNA fragmentation.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding e-cigarettes, but I think that we could all agree that it is better to be safe than sorry”

Nicotine free e-cigarettes are available, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that these would harmlessly allow you to play out any physical habits, such as the need to put something in your mouth. Many consumers assume that the liquid is made of nothing more than water and some flavouring. But even nicotine free e-cigarettes have been linked to some nasty health effects, as unfortunately, and against popular belief, there is another chemical in there.

Propylene glycol is the main ingredient in a “vape” liquid, a chemical which has been deemed to be safe for use in food and flavourings. However, this acceptance by the FDA doesn’t consider that the chemical may be vaporised and breathed in. More is needed in the way of research to assess the long term health effects of such use.

While research is underway to determine the true long term health effects, it is difficult to state whether they are truly safe for use or not. There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding e-cigarettes, but I think that we could all agree that it is better to be safe than sorry. E-cigarettes have not been designed to be used for many years; they are primarily an aide to quit, as much as nicotine patches are, and you wouldn’t consider wearing them forever.

We can admit that e-cigarettes are a relatively safe alternative to tobacco cigarettes, but this does not constitute a health benefit; and they should not be an excuse to keep smoking.

Laura Finney

Feature image courtesy of Vaping 360 and Vaping360 via Flikr

To find out more about Science and Technology please follow Impact’s Science and Technology Facebook page

Humans and HealthScienceTechnology

Leave a Reply