Are There Dangerous Carcinogens in Your E-cigarette?

Human body with cancer cells spreading and growing

The headlines that have appeared recently in the news regarding e-cigarettes provided some source of worry for users and manufacturers of vaping devices. The troubling headlines which were all over the Internet, claim things like, “Study shows E-cigarettes contain 10 times more carcinogens than cigarettes” and “E-cigarettes aren’t as healthy as you think.” However, reading these headlines only begs the question is there truly a cause for concern, or this just another sensationalized attempt to vilify the e-cigarette industry?

The headlines, as well as the many stories that have come to light recently on this topic, are referring to the results of a study commissioned by the Japanese Health Ministry that came to press last week. These findings cannot be found in any official press release. They were not released in a press conference, nor were they published in a scientific paper. Those facts, however, did not stop numerous media outlets from running with the story, that first appeared on the Japanese newswire, AFP-JIJI.

The study included an analysis of e-cigarettes and the chemical content of their vapor. They obtained their data by having a machine artificially puff from a variety of yet unnamed e-cigarette brands. When the vapor was analyzed the researchers claimed that they found high levels of a variety of carcinogens from the tested e-cigarettes. The AFP-JIJI report focused especially on the presence of formaldehyde, a substance most notably known for being the main ingredient in embalming fluid. The research officials said that in the samples they tested formaldehyde was present at much higher levels than what is found in traditional cigarette smoke. Researcher, Naoki Kunugita spoke to the high levels, noting that, “In one brand of e-cigarette the team found more than 10 times the level of carcinogens contained in one regular cigarette.” However Kunugita was sure to add that the amount of formaldehyde detected varied through the research, especially when the device gets overused. He noted that the higher amounts of harmful substances seemed to be produced more commonly when the device overheated.

While the researchers appear to have focused on formaldehyde, the limited information released on the report does not specify most of these, so-called harmful carcinogens, leaving the reader confused on how much harm an e-cigarette really could deliver. Traditional combustible cigarettes contain far more harmful carcinogens than e-cigarettes; even if there is validity in the report, it is still hard to say that e-cigarettes aren’t useful at the very least as harm reducers. No matter what report you read it is rarely contested that e-cigarettes are the healthier alternative to traditional smokes. Vapor will always clearly be healthier than tobacco smoke, with its cancer causing toxins and harmful tar.

Hiroyuki Noda, a member of Japan’s Health Ministry spoke to the Guardian stating that “the most important finding is that the vapor contained recognized carcinogens.” This over simplifies the findings, and does not prove health benefits or detriments in any way. It is of course, a possibility that e-cigarettes have their own dangers. It is in fact likely and few people are denying that. However, their place as a harm reducer should not be compromised; e-cigarettes truly offer a better alternative to many smokers as replacement or cessation devices.

In addition one must question the reasoning for focusing on the formaldehyde.  Francie Diep, a reporter with Popular Science pondered the AFP-JIJI motivation in releasing the information they did on e-cigarettes. In response to why they only reported on formaldehyde she writes: “Was it because out of all the chemicals the research team analyzed, formaldehyde was the only one present in ‘much higher levels’ in e-cigarette vapor versus regular cigarette smoke? Or was it because formaldehyde is a familiar chemical name to many people? Maybe the team found several carcinogenic chemicals appear in higher concentrations in e-cig vapor than in tobacco smoke, but the AFP and JIJI chose not to talk about those findings. They might not have anticipated how hungry regular readers would be for those details.”

Readers are of course starving for the details and have the right to hear the real story, not just a scary headline. Those who do research know that previous studies have found over and over again that e-cigarettes contain less harmful and fewer toxins than regular, combustible cigarettes. There is no denying those facts. E-cigarettes are considered less harmful so much so that even the American Heart Association has come out in support of electronic cigarettes being helpful and successful devices to aid in the battle to quit smoking.

Of course being less harmful that cigarettes isn’t necessarily that hard of a thing to do. Tobacco researcher Stanton Glantz was quoted earlier this year saying, “You can be a lot less bad as a cigarette and still be pretty bad.” This, of course, is true, but that is no reason to make e-cigarettes the bad guy, without any real proof. This latest report doesn’t seem to have enough information present to even bring the e-cigarette’s potential health benefits into question.

The analysis from the Japanese Health Ministry gives us limited information at best. Even with more details, which aren’t available publicly anyway, it is hard to gauge what all these results would even mean. What are the carcinogens and are they at truly harmful levels? If they were so bad, why aren’t they mentioned in the report? It appears as though this news just seems to create more questions than answers, but it sure does create a flashy headline.

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