The aerosol particles emitted from vaping are so tiny they can actually seep through paint on walls — the pores in the paint would look like Swiss cheese in comparison to the particle size. (Photo: iStock)
The emissions from e-cigarettes are just water vapor, right? Wrong.
The “vapor” emitted from an e-cig is actually not water vapor, but more like an aerosol gas, as the emissions consist of tiny particles that contain nicotine, glycerin/glycols, artificial flavorings and preservatives, among other chemicals, according to a new study from RTI International.
And the warm, humid conditions of the lungs seem to prevent these aerosol particles from evaporating — which is cause for concern. This is just one of the learnings gleaned from an expert panel that convened on Thursday to discuss the latest research in vaping.
The takeaway: E-cigarette emissions — whether you yourself are vaping or if you’re standing next to someone who is — have an immediate effect on your acute lung function.
A big concern is the size of the particles, according to Jonathan Thornburg, Ph.D., author of the study and a senior research engineer and director of Exposure and Aerosol Technology at RTI International. “They are smaller than 1,000 nanometers, 50 times smaller than the width of a human hair,” he says. “They can stay airborne for a long time, and penetrate into the deepest part of our lungs.”
The extremely minute size of the particles actually ups their penetrative powers, which is causing experts to wonder what the impacts will be for tissues inside the body. Stanton Glantz, Ph.D., professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco and director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, says the aerosol particles emitted are so tiny they can actually seep through the paint on painted walls. If you scaled that representation to size, the pores in the paint would look something like Swiss cheese in comparison to the particle size — which might cause imminent problems.
We may see vastly different health effects result from of e-cigarette use than we do from conventional cigarettes. Because they don’t burn anything and there’s a lack of combustion, fewer cancer-causing chemicals are emitted. However, e-cig emissions are still composed of ultra-fine particles with nicotine and numerous other potentially damaging additives. “Even some of the flavorings are dangerous — like cinnamon, if you inhale it, can be quite toxic,” Glantz says. “It’s a different risk profile. Some toxicologists think it’s inappropriate to even compare e-cigarettes to tobacco cigarettes.”
Glantz thinks we may eventually discover more heart-related consequences associated with vaping. “Exposure to the ultra-fine particles inhibits blood vessels to get larger when they need to, and makes platelets sticky, which leads to more heart attacks,” he says. “The particle effects are a big factor. The oxidizing agents also oxidize cholesterol, which leads to heart disease and heart attacks.”
And that doesn’t just go for e-cig emissions. Similar health issues also might result in areas of high air pollution, too. “It’s important to understand that heart attacks are triggered,”Glantz continues. “The ultra-fine particles lead to inflammation, which can actually trigger a heart attack.”
Ultimately, when asked flat-out about safety, the panel concluded that e-cigarettes are probably not as harmful as standard cigarettes. “We know that the level of carcinogens and toxins are lower,”says Thornburg.
That said, there was no endorsement for unending use.
“They’re not as dangerous as cigarettes, but they’re not safe,”Glantz says. “You are better off not using them. The question is how much safer are they than regular cigarettes?”
To put it in better perspective, Glantz also offers this: “They are less toxic than a cigarette, but the cigarette is probably the most toxic consumer product ever designed. It’s a low bar.”
And although many ingredients are regarded as generally safe by the FDA upon ingestion, the effects upon inhalation aren’t well understood or studied, leaving a need for better clarity — especially with the prevalence of e-cigarettes taking off in recent years. Since 2007, e-cig sales have doubled each year, finally reaching the $1 billion mark in 2013.
Roughly 13 percent of adults have tried vaping, one-third of whom had never before smoked conventional cigarettes, according to Annice Kim, Ph.D., a senior social scientist in the Public Health Policy Research Program at RTI. “Eight percent of current tobacco smokers also use e-cigarettes,” says Kim, who is currently tracking vaping trends on social media and among key demographics, like kids and teens.
“The trends are alarming,” she says. “Seventeen percent of 12th graders have used e-cigarettes in the past month. To date, 40 states have prohibited e-cigarette sales to minors, but as of January 1, 2015, only four states have banned e-cigarette use in schools statewide.”