The safety of electronic cigarettes just got a little murkier with the results of a study from Penn State College of Medicine that suggest they carry risks for cell damage and even cancer.
“There are high levels of free radicals – unstable reactive chemicals – that are very damaging to cells,” said Dr. John P. Richie Jr., researcher and professor of public health sciences and pharmacology at the College of Medicine. “We already know that cigarettes contain very high levels of free radicals and we know they play a key role in tobacco-related disorders like cancers, heart disease and COPD.”
The Penn State College of Medicine study, results of which were published recently in the journal “Chemical Research in Toxicology,” is the first study that shows the presence of free radicals in e-cigarettes.
While the level of free radicals Penn State researchers found in e-cigarettes is much lower than in cigarettes, their presence raises red flags that must not be ignored, Richie said.
“We have to find out what harm they may do. People are inhaling these vapors directly into their lungs. It is beholden upon us as researchers to see if they really are safe,” he said.
Another recent study – this one by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – found that diacetyl, a flavoring chemical linked to cases of severe respiratory disease, was found in more than 75 percent of flavored electronic cigarettes and refill liquids tested in the study.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the flavoring industry have issued warnings about diacetyl because inhaling the chemical has been linked to a respiratory disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. The lung-damaging condition is often called “Popcorn Lung” because it first appeared in people who inhaled artificial butter flavor while working in microwave popcorn processing plants.
The Harvard researchers tested 51 types of flavored e-cigarettes and liquids for the presence of three potentially harmful chemicals and found at least one of the chemicals in 47 of the 51 flavors tested. Researchers concluded that much is still not known about the health dangers of using e-cigarettes.
As the debate goes on, Richie and his colleagues turn their attention to the next step in their research, which is to find out what harm free radicals in e-cigarettes may do.
“We will identify specific free radicals through analytical techniques in the lab where we will collect vapors and go through a series of tests to break down the chemical structures,” he said. “Another approach is to expose the cells in Petri dishes to the vapors and look at the effects on the cells for certain types of damage.”
The FDA, which is considering regulating the currently unregulated use of e-cigarettes, is funding the year-long study, Richie said. The FDA will likely take the Penn State College of Medicine study results into consideration when taking any regulatory action, he said.
“The take-away message right now is a little hard because we are not giving an definitive message that e-cigarettes are harmful because they contain these agents,” Richie said. “But we are saying there is reason to suspect they could do damage.”