Year in review: Risks of e-cigarettes emerge

Vaping is better than smoking, but it's not benign

electronic cigarette

E-CIGARETTE RISKS  Electronic cigarettes dispense water vapor laced with flavors and often a hefty dose of nicotine. These vapors may be far from benign, studies in 2014 suggested.

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Electronic cigarettes are marketed as a safer alternative to inhaling the combustion products of tobacco. And to some extent, that’s correct.

“There’s no question that a puff on an e-cigarette is less toxic than a puff on a regular cigarette,” says Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco.

But that’s an advantage only for people already addicted to nicotine, he warns. In fact, his research shows, manufacturers target their electronic cigarettes to nonsmokers too — including teens and tweens. Electronic devices dispense water vapor laced with flavors and often a hefty dose of nicotine. These vapors may be far from benign, studies in 2014 suggested.

Researchers in Italy reported that people exhale less nitric oxide, indicating lung inflammation, right after vaping (SN: 7/12/14, p. 20). RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., reported that the median diameter of vaping particles runs between 200 and 300 nanometers, comparable in size to cigarette smoke particles. And particles that people inhale while vaping are likely to settle deep in the lung, RTI’s team concluded.

Inhaled e-cig vapors also make some germs hard to kill, researchers reported in May. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, grew faster in rodents exposed to e-cigarette vapors. In test tubes, MRSA bacteria exposed to vapors developed coatings that made them difficult to kill by one of the body’s natural antibiotics.

A solvent used in many flavored e-cig liquids can transform into a family of carcinogens that includes acetaldehyde and the suspected carcinogen formaldehyde, Maciej Goniewicz of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., and colleagues reported. So-called second-generation e-cigarettes that run hotter — to dispense more flavor and nicotine — pose the biggest risk, his team showed (SN: 6/28/14, p. 9). And e-cigarette vapors can contain nitrosamines, agents suspected of triggering lung cancer in smokers.

Nicotine is also not benign. It can change the brain’s structure as it develops into young adulthood, notes Glantz. That’s one reason why he is concerned by federal data reported in 2014 showing that from 2011 to 2013, the number of U.S. children in grades 6 through 12 who had tried vaping doubled — to 6.8 percent (SN for Students: 3/19/14).

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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