A new report from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is raising questions regarding the safety of e-cigarettes. The report, released on February 4th in PLOS One suggests that e-cigarettes not only contain some of the same potentially dangerous chemicals that are found in regular cigarettes, but they also may compromise the immune system and jeopardize the health of its users.
This report is not the first to make this sort of claim calling into question the potential health benefits that accompany a switch from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes. A study by National Jewish Health was released late in 2014 claiming e-cigarettes liquid, whether it contained nicotine or not, could damage cells and increase the risk of infection. The study, performed by doctors at the health center in Denver, believed that inhaling e-cigarette vapor damages the epithelial cells in the human airway.
For the more recent study at John Hopkins, the researchers divided mice into two groups: one was exposed to the e-cigarette vapor in amounts that estimated what actual human e-cigarette inhalation would be for a two week period; the other group of mice was just exposed to regular air. The mice exposed to the vapor were supposedly more likely to develop compromised immune responses when they were exposed to nasal drops of the flu virus and the bacterium responsible for pneumonia and sinusitis. The researchers found that in some cases this even killed the mice.
Dr Shyam Biswal is a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Science at John Hopkins Bloomberg School and he believes these results are a blow to the supposed health benefit aspect of the e-cigarette industry. ”Our findings suggest that e-cigarettes are not neutral in terms of the effects on the lungs,” Dr. Biswal said in a statement. “We have observed that they increase the susceptibility to respiratory infections in the mouse models. This warrants further study in susceptible individuals, such as COPD patients who have switched from cigarettes to e-cigarettes or to new users of e-cigarettes who may have never used cigarettes.”
The research team found that e-cigarette vapor’s effect on the immune system was likely due to “free radicals,” highly reactive toxins found in cigarette smoke and air pollution that can cause cell death by damaging DNA and other molecule found in cells.
“E-cigarette vapor alone produced mild effects on the lungs, including inflammation and protein damage,” said Dr. Thomas Sussan, a lead author and an assistant scientist in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. “However, when this exposure was followed by a bacterial or viral infection, the harmful effects of e-cigarette exposure became even more pronounced. The e-cigarette exposure inhibited the ability of mice to clear the bacteria from their lungs, and the viral infection led to increased weight loss and death indicative of an impaired immune response.”
The immediate reports seem dire and upon first inspection this new study seem like a death blow to those who are using e-cigarettes to improve their health. The fine print, however, almost always reveals a different truth.
The researchers at John Hopkins have also determined that the e-cigarette vapor contains “free radicals,” known toxins that are also found in cigarette smoke and air pollution. Free radicals are highly reactive agents that can damage DNA or other molecules within cells, potentially resulting in cell death. Cigarette smoke contains approximately 1014 free radicals per puff. E-cigarette vapor contains 1 percent as much as it’s combustible counterpart. Researchers still believe that the presence of these toxins in e-cigarettes still suggests potential health risks and therefore merits further study.
The earlier findings from the National Jewish Health study in December narrowed the source of the problem they found with the cells in immune system down to the e-liquid making it clear that it is not the vaping process, or the nicotine. In both studies this begs the question, with thousands of e-liquids on the market, the quality becomes a serious factor. What brands and flavors did they test? Were the e-liquids made in the USA or imported? In addition, what device was used in the study and where was it made? In previous studies, there have been findings suggesting that toxic material can come from poorly made e-cigarette devices. Did they use only one device, or did they use a variety of different styles? If a study is not taking into account variety and quality in manufacturing then it is not fully representing e-cigarette users. In addition, the Hopkins study uses animal testing, for what is believed to be the first time in e-cigarette trials, which truly brings any findings into question when you are wondering about a human response.
The large amount of variables make studies like this hard to trust. There is no way to tell if the so-called cell damage is long-term or permanent. The truth is, the worst case scenario isn’t even that bad in comparison to the dangers of cigarette smoke. In reality all they really claim is that e-cigarettes weaken the immune system. Yes this isn’t something anyone wants, but in reality, how bad is it? If the alternative to inhaling smoke and tar and increasing your risk of cancer, is a greater risk of catching a cold, is that alternative really that horrible?
It doesn’t take a genius to know that no one wants to be sick and raising that risk has its own dangers. For many, however, to kick the smoking habit altogether, it is considered a risk that is worth the reward. E-cigarettes are still, without doubt, a better alternative to traditional smokes, and even with the most recent findings you’ll find it is very hard to make it seem otherwise.