New study finds e-cigarettes could release 15 times more formaldehyde than tobacco

It doesn’t look particularly healthy.
It doesn’t look particularly healthy.
Image: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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E-cigarettes have been controversial since manufacturers started touting them as the solution to smoking—no tobacco, and instead of smoke they produce a vapor that makers claim is much less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

Now, new research suggests that vaping with devices turned to a ”high voltage” can actually produce more of one harmful chemical—formaldehyde—than is found in normal cigarettes. That’s according to a letter from Portland State University researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

E-cigarettes require no tobacco and nothing burns, and thus they give off no smoke. Instead, with each “puff” the e-cigarette releases a little bit of the heated liquid in a cartridge into vapor form, for the user to inhale. Users can choose the “voltage” at which this vapor is released.

Formaldehyde is used for a range of purposes, from household products to preserving dead bodies, and the US government has classified it as a carcinogen. These researchers analyzed the vapor produced by the e-cigarettes and found dangerous levels of formaldehyde. In fact, they found that the formaldehyde that a vaper would be exposed to from high-voltage e-cigarette use is five to 15 times more than the exposure from smoking normal cigarettes.

Representatives of the vaping industry insist that few people would use the high-voltage setting because of the harsh taste, and that is the only setting at which formaldehyde was found.

But doctors have been debunking the “e-cigarettes are harmless” theory for a few years now. E-cigarettes still have nicotine, which is addictive, can contribute to causing cancer, and is associated with birth defects in children. The vapor is marketed as nearly harmless, yet a review of published data last year found that there isn’t enough research on its long-term effects to come to such a conclusion.

One of the letter’s authors, James F. Pankow, told NBC that it’s still too early to fully understand the negative effects of e-cigarettes. “But the bottom line is there are toxins, and some are more than in regular cigarettes. And if you are vaping, you probably shouldn’t be using it at a high-voltage setting.”