Users of e-cigarettes may be inhaling levels of dangerous toxic metals, according to a study from Johns Hopkins University of Bloomberg School of Public Health. It found that toxic metals, including lead, leaked from a significant number of the heating coils of e-cigarette devices and were inhaled by users.
In the study, which was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that the vapors could contain unsafe levels of lead, chromium, manganese and/or nickel. Chronic inhalation of these metals has been linked to lung, liver, immune, cardiovascular and brain damage, and even cancers.
“It’s important for the FDA, the e-cigarette companies and vapers themselves to know that these heating coils, as currently made, seem to be leaking toxic metals — which then get into the aerosols that vapers inhale,” says study senior author Ana María Rule.
E-cigarettes normally use a battery-supplied electric current that passes through a metal coil to heat nicotine-containing “e-liquids.” The process creates an aerosol, which contains vaporized e-liquid and tiny liquid droplets. Vaping, the practice of inhaling this aerosol as if it were cigarette smoke, is now popular especially among teens, young adults and former smokers.
For the new study, Rule and her colleagues recruited 56 daily e-cigarette users from vaping conventions and e-cigarette shops around Baltimore during the fall of 2015. Working with participants’ devices, which they brought to the researchers’ lab at the Bloomberg School, the scientists tested for the presence of 15 metals in the e-liquids in the vapers’ refilling dispensers, the e-liquids in their coil-containing e-cigarette tanks, and in the generated aerosols.
Consistent with prior studies, they found minimal amounts of metals in the e-liquids within refilling dispensers, but much larger amounts of some metals in the e-liquids that had been exposed to the heating coils within e-cigarette tanks.
The difference indicated that the metals almost certainly had come from the coils. Most importantly, the scientists showed that the metal contamination carried over to the aerosols produced by heating the e-liquids.
The median lead concentration in the aerosols, for example, was more than 25 times greater than the median level in the refill dispensers. Almost 50 percent of aerosol samples had lead concentrations higher than health-based limits defined by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“These were median levels only,” Rule says. “The actual levels of these metals varied greatly from sample to sample, and often were much higher than safe limits.”
E-cigarette heating coils are normally made of nickel, chromium and a few other elements. They are probably the sources of metal contamination, although the source of the lead remains a mystery. Precisely how metals get from the coil into the surrounding e-liquid is another mystery.
“We don’t know yet whether metals are chemically leaching from the coil or vaporizing when it’s heated,” Rule says.
The researchers did observe, however, that aerosol metal concentrations tended to be higher for e-cigarettes with more frequently changed coils, suggesting that fresher coils give off metals more readily.
Many recent studies have questioned the safety of electronic cigarettes. A study published in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found they may be no safer than traditional cigarettes and trigger the same immune responses that lead to lung disease.
A study from Yale Cancer Center found that the nicotine in e-cigarettes, in and of itself, can cause cancer by damaging DNA. An earlier study had indicated that the flavorings in e-cigarettes could damage heart muscle.
Although the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate e-cigarettes, it is considering its options.
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