A government-funded study in Japan has revealed that some e-cigarettes (the electronic devices that were designed to replace traditional cigarettes, and which are supposed to be a healthy alternative to cigarettes) contain high levels of chemicals that have been linked to the development of cancer. The research comes from the Health Ministry of Japan, who decided to investigate the various brands of e-cigarettes because of the increased number of users in recent years.

Indeed, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were more than quarter of a million young people who utilized electronic cigarettes in 2013, and none of these individuals had previously smoked. The CDC also notes that there were three times as many new users in 2013 as there were in 2011 (the numbers increased from about 79,000 in 2011 to more than 263,000 in 2013).

Naoki Kunugita, the study's author and lead researcher, states that this increase is what piqued her interest in e-cigarettes. She asserts that, ultimately, people aren't just using these devices as a way of quitting their tobacco use; rather, many people smoking e-cigarettes never participated in a similar social activity:  "We need to be aware that some makers are selling such products for dual use (with tobacco) or as a gateway for young people,” she states.

Since there has been such a dramatic rise in use, it is important to fully understand the impact that these devices have on the human body, and the outlook is not good in some cases.

E-cigarettes come with a number of different flavored liquids, which are heated electronically (hence, the name of the device). The resulting vapor is then inhaled to produce a tobacco flavor without (so we are told) the harmful effects caused by "actual" smoking.

To test the validity of this alternative, Kunugita and her team utilized several brands. The researchers tested the various cigarettes using a machine that inhaled 10 sets of 15 puffs. They discovered that several brands contain known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, along with other harmful chemicals. Ultimately, for one of the worst brands (the name of which has not been released yet), the device produced some 1,600 micrograms of formaldehyde for 15 puffs. The researchers note that this is a 10-fold increase in formaldehyde levels in nine out of every 10 sets.

That said, it is currently not clear whether such a dramatic increase was caused by a faulty device. As a result, more research into this specific brands, and what specific mechanisms cause the chemical release, is necessary. Nonetheless, this raises questions about other potentially "faulty" devices. How will one know when their device is malfunctioning and unsafe for use?

The study did finds that, much like in ordinary cigarettes, the levels of chemicals present depends on the brand that is used, so you can protect yourself a bit by doing proper research. However, containing less carcinogens is not "healthy," and it's not nearly as good as containing none. As Kunugita notes, even brands that do not have an abundance of carcinogens still have other harmful agents. Consequently, e-cigarettes should not be taken up because one thinks that they do not cause harm. They do.

The researchers also noted that, when the wire that vaporizes the liquid gets overheated, higher amounts of these harmful substances seemed to be produced than normal. The paper states:

These carbonyl compounds are incidentally generated by the oxidation of e-liquid (liquid in e-cigarette; glycerol and glycols) when the liquid comes in contact with the heated nichrome wire. The compositions and concentrations of these compounds vary depending on the type of e-liquid and the battery voltage. In some cases, extremely high concentrations of these carbonyl compounds are generated, and may contribute to various health effects. Suppliers, risk management organizations, and users of e-cigarettes should be aware of this phenomenon.

So although cigarettes have more chemicals than e-cigarettes, and it is better to use an e-cigarette than a regular cigarette, it's still not good to use either.

The results have been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.


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