E-cigs Deliver Appalling Amounts of Heavy Metals

e cigarettes

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you smoke e-cigarettes you may be exposing yourself to dangerous chemicals and toxic heavy metals with each puff, associated with cancers, heart disease and stroke
  • Despite delivering lower levels of nicotine, people exposed to e-cigarette air pollution have similar levels of nicotine in their system as those exposed to traditional secondhand cigarette smoke
  • Other toxins detected in e-cigarette vapors include diacetyl, formaldehyde, diethylene glycol, tobacco-specific nitrosamine and highly reactive free radicals
  • Rates of those vaping have been declining, but this success may be threatened by budget cuts to CDC programs; you can prepare yourself mentally and physically to quit smoking using exercise and nutrition, and finding a healthy emotional outlet

By Dr. Mercola

While the gradual demise of traditional cigarettes has been heralded as an achievement for better health, the dangers of the alternative many have chosen may be just as alarming. If you smoke e-cigarettes (e-cigs), it is important to know researchers have demonstrated you may be exposing yourself to dangerous chemicals and heavy metals with each puff.

It is currently believed that e-cigs do not expose you to the thousands of toxic compounds the average conventional combustion cigarette contains, but researchers are only beginning to understand the toxicities involved in smoking e-cigarettes. In some ways, these man-made tobacco alternatives are just as dangerous to your health as regular cigarettes, but may have different consequences.

Smoking traditional cigarettes harms nearly every organ in your body and triggers many different diseases, including many cancers, reduced lung function, chronic obstructive lung disease and coronary artery disease.1 Recent research published in Environmental Health Perspectives now demonstrates vapor and aerosol samples from e-cigarette liquid may release heavy metals dangerous to human health.2

Toxic Heavy Metals Found in Vapor From E-Cigarettes

The study was conducted by scientists at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They examined devices owned by 56 users, finding a significant number of them generated aerosol with unsafe levels of lead, nickel, chromium and manganese.3 Participants were recruited from vaping conventions and e-cigarette shops in the Baltimore area. The devices were brought to the laboratory where researchers tested for the presence of 15 metals.4

The results were consistent with past studies, finding a minimal amount of heavy metal in the e-liquid, but much larger amounts in the liquid that had been exposed to heating coils.5

This difference suggested the heavy metals were originating from the heating coils within the e-cigarette tank. Heavy metal concentrations were also higher in devices where the owners frequently change the coils. Of the different metals measured in the aerosol, lead, nickel, chromium and manganese were most concerning as they are highly toxic when inhaled.

Nearly 50 percent of the vapor samples had lead concentrations higher than limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).6 Concentrations of the other three metals either approached or exceeded safety limits set by the EPA.  Researchers observed the heating coils were made of nickel, chromium and several other metals, making this the most obvious source of contamination. However, the source of lead remained a mystery.

Inhaled lead can attack your brain and central nervous system, as well as your kidneys, liver and bones.7 In adults, lead may stay dormant in teeth and bones for years but may be reactivated during pregnancy. It can poison a developing baby and trigger brain damage. Also concerning was the amount of arsenic detected in the refill liquid and the tank in 10 of the 56 devices.

The researchers suggested it’s important for regulators to determine the cause for the presence of arsenic8 as it can trigger cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.9 Past studies have demonstrated e-cigs release higher levels of nickel, zinc and silver.10 The lead author of one study commented, "Some of these metals are extremely toxic even in very low amounts."11 The author added in a statement:12

"The metal particles likely come from the cartridge of the e-cigarette devices themselves — which opens up the possibility that better manufacturing standards for the devices could reduce the quantity of metals in the smoke. Studies of this kind are necessary for implementing effective regulatory measures. E-cigarettes are so new, there just isn't much research available on them yet."

Secondhand Aerosol Dangerous for Bystanders

E-cigarettes deliver nicotine and other chemicals using a heated liquid, but not combustion in the way traditional cigarettes function. Heat is created by a battery, creating an aerosol containing nicotine. As you inhale the vapor, you receive nicotine and flavor chemicals, experiencing the same effect from nicotine in cigarettes without the high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons associated with smoking traditional cigarettes.

E-cigarettes and vaping pens come in a variety of shapes and sizes but all deliver the same composition of chemicals. And, while the user inhales most of the vapor and aerosolized toxins, some of it also enters the environment to affect the health of bystanders. In a study from the University of Southern California,13 researchers conducted experiments in offices where volunteers had smoked traditional cigarettes and e-cigs.

Air sample analysis revealed smoking e-cigs resulted in a tenfold decrease in carcinogenic particulate matter, but toxic metals from e-cigarette secondhand smoke was much higher than regular cigarette smoke. Another study looked at the structure of e-cigarette devices, testing whether aerosolized metal was derived from the components.14 They found components were sometimes missing or had evidence of use before packaging. Elements identified in e-cig aerosol were known to cause respiratory disease.

Researchers also felt the presence of silicate particles found in the aerosol necessitated improved quality control in the design and manufacture of devices to protect the health of users and bystanders.

Bystanders may be lulled into a false sense of security as the vapor from e-cigs often has little to no scent and appears to dissipate quickly. However, research from the University of California San Francisco15 demonstrates e-cigs pollute the air with nicotine and fine particulate matter that is easily absorbed by bystanders through inhalation.

Despite the lower levels of nicotine pollution e-cigs produce, researchers found people exposed to e-cigarette air pollution have a similar level of cotinine — a measure of the amount of nicotine taken into the body — as those exposed to traditional secondhand cigarette smoke.16 The reason for this discrepancy remains unclear.

Highly Reactive Free Radicals Cause Damage

In a study commissioned by Japan's Health Ministry, researchers found acetaldehyde and formaldehyde in the vapor produced by several types of e-cig devices.17 At least one brand had more than 10 times the level of carcinogens found in a traditional cigarette. Researchers from the University of Louisville18 conducted quantitative analysis on older and newer model cartridges.

The older models had a fixed battery output while the next generation devices had a variable output, allowing the user to increase heat produced by the battery. Emissions of aldehydes from all the devices, both new and older, created a health risk for the user and bystander.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has detected the antifreeze chemical diethylene glycol in e-cigarette cartridges, which is linked to cancer.19 According to Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, secondhand smoke from e-cigs may contain at least 10 chemicals that have been identified on California's proposition 65 list of reproductive toxins and carcinogens.20

Diacetyl is an artificial flavor used by popcorn makers21 to add a buttery taste to microwave popcorn. The chemical is linked to respiratory damage22 and permanent scarring of the airway, aptly named “popcorn lung.” In an evaluation of 51 e-cigarette flavors on the market, Harvard researchers found 47 of the 51 contained flavoring chemicals, including diacetyl.23 The chemical was detected in more than those flavors sounding “buttery,” including fruit-flavored, alcohol-flavored and candy-flavored e-cigarettes.

Aerosol released by e-cig devices has been analyzed and found to have the presence of highly reactive free radicals.24 In traditional cigarette smoke, these highly reactive free radicals are associated with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease. The researchers found e-cig levels were more than you may be exposed to in heavily polluted air, but less than what you find in traditional cigarette smoke.

Decline of Vaping May Be Threatened

The first recorded instance of an e-cigarette device was in 1963 when Herbert Gilbert filed a patent on his design.25 The idea did not become popular at the time and it wasn't until 2003 when a Chinese pharmacist revolutionized the design enabling smokers to inhale nicotine without combustion.

Today, tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in America.26 Nearly 40 million adults smoke cigarettes and 4.7 million middle and high school students have used at least one tobacco product, including e-cigarettes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)27 state e-cigarettes contain potentially harmful substances, including nicotine, flavorings, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. Nicotine is the addictive substance and is a known toxin to developing babies. Exposure harms adolescent brain development until your early to mid-20s.

In 2014, smoking among high school students had declined, but use of e-cigs had increased. Fortunately, according to a 2017 survey by the CDC,28 the number of students using e-cigs has steadily declined since 2014. The CDC attributes the decline to a combination of tobacco restrictions, taxes and advertising.

While these strategies have demonstrated success, the American Lung Association believes budget cuts proposed by President Trump, which will eliminate the CDC Office on Smoking and Health, will threaten this progress. American Lung Association CEO Harold Wimmer told NBC news:29

“Funding to states would also be severely cut, making it even harder to prevent and reduce tobacco use in local communities across the country. Congress must reconsider this ill-advised budget and robustly fund the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.”

Matthew Myers, president for the campaign for tobacco-free kids, agrees, saying:30

“The dramatic, long-term decline in youth cigarette smoking is a public health success story of extraordinary importance. Our progress stems directly from implementing proven strategies, including higher tobacco taxes, comprehensive smoke-free laws, effective FDA oversight of tobacco products and marketing, well-funded tobacco prevention and cessation programs, and hard-hitting media campaigns, like the campaigns conducted by the CDC, the FDA and Truth Initiative in recent years. In addition, California, Hawaii and over 245 cities and counties have now raised the tobacco sale age to 21.”

How To Make Quitting Smoking Easier

I believe the "secret" to quitting smoking is to get healthy first, which will make quitting mentally and physically easier. Exercising is an important part of this plan, as research shows people who engage in regular strength training double their success rate at quitting smoking compared to those who don't exercise.31 Healthy eating is another crucial factor to improving your health and strengthening your ability to quit. In short, if you want to quit, here are three basic tips to get started:

  • Read through my comprehensive free nutrition plan to get started eating right.
  • Develop a well-rounded exercise regimen. This is your ally to fighting disease and to quitting smoking. Strength training is an important part, but also remember to incorporate high-intensity interval exercises, core-strengthening exercises, stretching and regular nonexercise movement (like walking and cutting back on sitting).
  • Find a healthy emotional outlet. Many use exercise, meditation or relaxation techniques for this, and these are all great. I also recommend incorporating Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). This can help clear out emotional blockages from your system (some of which you might not even realize are there), thus restoring your mind and body's balance and helping you break the addiction and avoid cravings.

Once you are regularly doing these three things, then you can begin to think about quitting smoking. At this point many are ready to try quitting "cold turkey." If you need a distraction, these six things to do instead of smoking may help. Finally, if you're a parent, talk with your children about the risks of smoking, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes. The easiest pathway to not smoking is to avoid starting in the first place.

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