Electronic cigarettes are unsafe and pose health risks, new study finds

December 3, 2010
The image shows e-cigarette fluid leaking out of a cartridge, making it difficult to handle without touching the nicotine solution. Credit: Talbot lab, UC Riverside.

Electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes), also called "electronic nicotine delivery systems," are increasingly used worldwide even though only sparse information is available on their health effects. In the United States, e-cigarettes are readily available in shopping malls in most states and on the Internet. But how safe are e-cigarettes?

To address this question, researchers at the University of California, Riverside evaluated five e-cigarette brands and found design flaws, lack of adequate labeling, and several concerns about quality control and health issues. They conclude that e-cigarettes are potentially harmful and urge regulators to consider removing e-cigarettes from the market until their safety is adequately evaluated.

Unlike conventional cigarettes, which burn tobacco, e-cigarettes vaporize nicotine, along with other compounds present in the cartridge, in the form of aerosol created by heating, but do not produce the thousands of chemicals and toxicants created by tobacco combustion. Nothing is known, however, about the chemicals present in the aerosolized vapors emanating from e-cigarettes.

"As a result, some people believe that e-cigarettes are a safe substitute for conventional cigarettes," said Prue Talbot, the director of UC Riverside's Stem Cell Center, whose lab led the research. "However, there are virtually no scientific studies on e-cigarettes and their safety. Our study – one of the first studies to evaluate e-cigarettes – shows that this product has many flaws, which could cause serious public health problems in the future if the flaws go uncorrected."

Study results appear in this month's issue of Tobacco Control.

Talbot, a professor of cell biology and neuroscience, was joined in the study by Anna Trtchounian, the first author of the research paper. Together, they examined the design, accuracy and clarity of labeling, nicotine content, leakiness, defective parts, disposal, errors in filling orders, instruction manual quality and advertizing for the following brands of e-cigarettes: NJOY, Liberty Stix, Crown Seven (Hydro), Smoking Everywhere (Gold and Platinum) and VapCigs.

Their main observations are that:

  • Batteries, atomizers, cartridges, cartridge wrappers, packs and instruction manuals lack important information regarding e-cigarette content, use and essential warnings;

  • E-cigarette cartridges leak, which could expose nicotine, an addictive and dangerous chemical, to children, adults, pets and the environment;

  • Currently, there are no methods for proper disposal of e-cigarettes products and accessories, including cartridges, which could result in contamination from discarded cartridges entering water sources and soil, and adversely impacting the environment; and

  • The manufacture, quality control, sales, and advertisement of e-cigarettes are unregulated.
"More research on e-cigarettes is crucially needed to protect the health of e-cigarette users and even those who do not use e-cigarettes," said Kamlesh Asotra, a research administrator at UC TRDRP. "Contrary to the claims of the manufacturers and marketers of e-cigarettes being 'safe,' in fact, virtually nothing is known about the toxicity of the vapors generated by these e-cigarettes. Until we know any thing about the potential health risks of the toxins generated upon heating the nicotine-containing content of the e-cigarette cartridges, the 'safety' claims of the manufactureres are dubious at best.

"Justifiably, more information about the potential toxic and of e-cigarette vapors is necessary before the public can have a definitive answer about the touted safety of e-cigarettes. Hopefully, in the near future, scientists can provide firm evidence for or against the claimed 'safety' of e-cigarettes as a nicotine-delivery tool."

UC TRDRP supports research that focuses on the prevention, causes, and treatment of tobacco-related disease and the reduction of the human and economic costs of tobacco use in California.

The study was funded by a grant to Talbot from the University of California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP).

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11 comments

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Shootist
3 / 5 (7) Dec 03, 2010
Hellsbells, life is unsafe and poses health risks.
xayk
5 / 5 (1) Dec 03, 2010
As opposed to all the wonderfull stuff the ordinarily cigarette brings us for certain?
ArcainOne
1 / 5 (1) Dec 03, 2010
well I just can't help but say it... DUH!
pauljpease
4 / 5 (4) Dec 03, 2010
I think those concerns are pretty mild and way better than actual cigarettes. Sounds like slightly improved technology and better labels and people will have much safer alternative to real cigarettes, which is probably good.
SincerelyTwo
5 / 5 (4) Dec 03, 2010
I wish we were allowed to delete our own comments during the editing period.
cmorrill321
5 / 5 (1) Dec 04, 2010
*deleted because I realized it might sound political and, to be honest, nobody needs website comment political discussions* :D

damnfuct
4 / 5 (1) Dec 04, 2010
Before jumping out of a burning building full of smoke, we need to do some studies to test how hazardous jumping out of the window will be, and whether you'll break your legs or not; stay put for the results of the double-blind study.
donjoe0
not rated yet Dec 04, 2010
There are people who have been vaping (a.k.a. inhaling the vapors produced by electronic cigarettes) for 1-2-3 years and haven't seen any ill effects (that they couldn't get rid of by changing their usage patterns and methods), but in fact have found important health improvements relative to their previous condition while smoking good-old "analogs". This must be some kind of indication that e-cigs can be fine if you're reasonably careful around them (don't drink the e-liquid if it has nicotine, d'oh).
VocalEK
not rated yet Dec 04, 2010
There are several things I don't understand: If the concern is whether the vapor is dangerous, why not test the vapor for toxicants? Instead a cell biologist is asked to evaluate the product design. Perhaps UC TRDRP is fairly sure tests on the vapor would reveal nothing harmful and it funded this research, instead, as a smokescreen. If these products are unsafe, how is it possible that 90% of users are reporting their health has improved?
laurajay
not rated yet Dec 06, 2010
Oh (big) brother!!!
Jadxia
not rated yet Dec 07, 2010
Many of the e-cigarettes don't really work to output the same levels of nicotine that they advertise. Maybe the increased health benefits come from the fact that they are actually smoking 'lights'.

Just because nicotine is 'natural' doesn't make it not poisonous.

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