The news has been full of ominous stories as of late concerning the content of formaldehyde in e-cigarette vapor. These concerns are coming following a study recently published in the New England Medical Journal that purported that formaldehyde would be formed from the e-liquid as it was vaporized in an e-cigarette.
Formaldehyde is, of course, not something anyone would want to inhale. The substance is well known for its use for embalming, but it is also found in industrial strength disinfectant, permanent-press fabrics, many glues, plywood and a whole host of other household products. Formaldehyde is also in that old fashioned, tobacco cigarette smoke too. The Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer warns that the dangers of formaldehyde exposure can cause leukemia and even nasopharyngeal cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also warns of contact with the substance and defines the chemical a “probably human carcinogen.”
You can imagine, the news of this horrible substance being in the supposedly safer e-cigarette vapor sent the media spin machines into full force. Within hours of the report’s release news media outlets were posting headlines that seemed like they were designed to scare people away from e-cigarettes once and for all. Headlines were claiming not only that e-cigarettes are unsafe, but now they are just as bad, if not worse, than their combustible counterparts. These claims, however, may not have much basis in reality and they are now being questioned by some of the brightest minds in the world of science and academia.
Professor Michael Siegel, of the Boston University School of Public Health, immediately questioned the results of the study, and conducted his own informal analysis of the facts. What Siegel found was that the temperature at which the glycol was broken down into formaldehyde was much higher than any temperature the e-cigarettes could even reach. In fact, if an e-cigarette were to reach the levels of heat used in the study, he believes, the e-cigarette would break apart or at best allow only one puff, which, he said, would taste “extremely unpleasant.”
Going one step further, Siegel argued that the study published in the New England Medical Journal truly showed that e-cigarettes were not dangerous at all. In using the higher temperatures the study proved that the glycol in the e-liquid does not evolve into anything harmful at the true temperature at which e-cigarettes vaporize nicotine. The user would have to take make special modifications and go out of their way to produce vapor with formaldehyde in it. Since the vapor that would be created at that high a temperature would be so unpleasant, it’s unlikely that anyone would want to do this anyway.
Professor Derek Yach is the head of the Vitality Institute in New York and he agrees that e-cigarettes are a much safer option saying: “My view remains that smokers who shift to e-cigs substantially reduce their risk of many diseases.” He does, however, advocate for more research, and reminds us that harm reduction doesn’t always mean all risk is gone. When using e-cigarettes he believes it’s important to remember that while they are safer, “the risk of disease however might not be zero.” At present, however, it is fairly clearly that the risk with e-cigarettes is so much lower than traditional cigarettes, that many experts, like Professor Yach, encourage an overall shift to e-cigarettes.
The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association was also quick to question the outcome of the New England Medicine Journal study. Greg Conley, president of the group remarked on the study’s findings on the day they came out questioning the reality of the testing conditions. He agrees that the temperature was a major issue, stating clearly, “These are not settings that real-life vapers actually use.” In addition, the Association agreed with Dr. Siegel, that the taste would be highly unpleasant and not something anyone would enjoy.
As more experts come out questioning the validity of this study, it seems increasingly obvious that the exposure to formaldehyde is not really a risk at all. While most will agree that more studies are needed to truly assess the health benefits, and potential drawbacks, of e-cigarettes, it’s important to remember that you have to remain critical about almost everything that you hear. That nasty headline may scare you at first, but digging a little deeper almost always alleviates the need for concern. Remaining educated and applying your own critical thinking will help you wade through the media muck and mire that often clouds the true issues at hand. The basic facts will always remain true: e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes, they are cheaper and less offensive too, and switching from smoking to vaping could change, actually, it could even save your life. That’s true, no matter what the study, or the media, says.