E-cigarettes have been steadily growing in popularity for the last decade as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes – yet negative reports in the media would have the public believe they’re just as harmful, or even worse, than tobacco.
Vapers and those in the e-cigarette industry know this simply isn’t true – and now a new research paper is helping to combat those damaging reports. A 2016 study reported that e-cigarettes emit extremely high levels of toxic aldehydes. The new research contradicts those findings, demonstrating that e-cigarettes emit significantly lower levels of aldehydes than tobacco cigarettes.
E-cigarette regulations: the Tobacco Products Directive
Since May 2016, e-cigarettes in the UK have been regulated by the EU Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). The TPD regulations ensure that all e-cigarettes and e-liquids meet minimum safety and quality standards, and that information is provided to consumers so they can make informed choices.
Ensuring safety in e-liquid testing labs
Before they’re approved for sale in the UK, e-liquids must be tested in e-liquid testing labs. This is an important part of TPD compliance, and crucial in ensuring products are safe to use. Any emissions identified in the tests must then be reported to the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
What are aldehydes, and why are they harmful?
Aldehydes are a group of chemical compounds including formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein. They’re formed in large quantities when tobacco burns, and are also produced in smaller quantities by e-cigarettes (but more about that later).
Exposure to aldehydes can be harmful to humans. Formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are carcinogenic, and cause irritation of the skin, eyes, throat, mucus membranes and respiratory tract. Acrolein is irritant to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract, and has been linked with lung cancers and heart disease.
The new research: what’s the background?
A 2015 study found that e-cigarettes can emit formaldehyde at much higher levels than tobacco cigarettes – a worrying result. However, that study was criticised for raising the e-cigarettes’ power levels too high and causing the ‘dry-puff’ phenomenon. E-cigarette users may be familiar with the dreaded dry puff, which happens when there isn’t enough e-liquid available to feed the heating coils, meaning they burn dry.
Dry puffs taste awful and cause coughing. Naturally, users avoid them whenever possible – rendering the 2015 study’s testing conditions unrealistic. The study also used an older ‘top-coil’ e-cigarette with an inefficient design that made it particularly prone to dry puffs. That design is no longer available in the EU.
The 2016 study we mentioned earlier reported levels of aldehyde emissions far higher than those caused by cigarettes – but again, this study used an outdated top-coil e-cigarette in its testing, and didn’t control for dry puffs.
Evidently, it was necessary to repeat these tests using a modern e-cigarette under realistic conditions that mimicked real-world use. That’s where the latest research came in…
The new study replicated the 2016 study, using the same e-liquid and the same type of e-cigarette. It also tested the same liquid with a new-generation e-cigarette that had higher power settings. The production of dry puffs was assessed by two experienced e-cigarette users, meaning the researchers were able to replicate realistic use.
The study found significant differences in the levels of aldehydes emitted by e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes. It found daily exposure to formaldehyde to be 18 times lower, acetaldehyde more than 450 times lower and acrolein more than 40 times lower from e-cigarette use compared to tobacco cigarette use.
That’s quite a difference – to be precise, the study found that e-cigarettes produced 94.4% less formaldehyde, 99.8% less acetaldehyde and 97.6% less acrolein than tobacco cigarettes.
To put the results in context, these exposure levels are far lower than the safe levels encountered daily in the average home or workplace, as well as regulatory safety limits set by various health organisations.
The study also found that even under normal vaping conditions with no dry puffs, the older-generation e-cigarette used in the 2016 study produced higher levels of formaldehyde than modern e-cigarettes, even when the latter were tested at high power settings. This, again, suggested that the results of that study weren’t representative of real-world use of e-cigarettes.
Previous studies have reported that aldehyde emissions increase when e-cigarettes are used at higher power settings. These results were measured in emissions per puff. However, the new study found that when measured per gram of e-liquid consumed, aldehyde emissions were similar at both high and low power settings. As e-cigarette users tend to measure their use by the amount of liquid they consume each day, this is a better metric for assessing their daily exposure to aldehydes.
The study showed that previous reports of extremely high aldehyde emissions were the result of unrealistic testing conditions, in particular dry puffs. Testing with modern e-cigarettes under realistic conditions showed that using e-cigarettes produces aldehyde emissions around 94-99% lower than smoking cigarettes, and significantly lower than safe environmental levels.
This means that, in terms of toxic aldehyde emissions, e-cigarettes are much safer than tobacco cigarettes, making them a good alternative for smokers who want to quit but find it difficult to resist nicotine cravings.
Image credit: vaping360