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Electronic Cigarettes: What’s in the Vapors?

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Users and non-users of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have many legitimate questions about these nicotine-delivery devices. E-cigarettes represent a nearly $2-billion-a-year industry, and one that’s growing exponentially. The number of young people trying e-cigarettes doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So it is natural that so many people are interested in the health consequences of using e-cigarettes.

Research from the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute has documented the impact of first-, second- and third-hand exposure to e-cigarette vapors. Our most recent research, done in collaboration with scientists from the Medical University of Silesia in Poland, offers insight into the user’s exposure to carcinogenic carbonyls.

The e-liquids used in e-cigarettes are primarily composed of glycerin and propylene glycol. We set out to find out what chemicals are generated during use of e-cigarettes, particularly at variable voltages. Some devices allow the user to adjust the voltage to increase vapor production and nicotine delivery.

We found that when e-cigarettes were operated at lower voltages, the vapors that were generated contained only traces of some toxic chemicals. These chemicals included the carbonyls formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acetone. However, when the voltage was increased, the levels of these toxicants also significantly increased.

The novel finding of our study is that the higher the voltage, the higher the levels of carbonyls. Increasing battery output voltage leads to higher temperature of the heating element inside the e-cigarette. Increasing the voltage from 3.2 to 4.8 volts resulted in increases of anywhere from 4 times to more than 200 times the exposure to formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acetone. The levels of formaldehyde in vapors from high-voltage devices were similar to those found in tobacco smoke.

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