E-cigarettes

Does Formaldehyde Make E-Cigarettes Worse Than the Real Thing?

Researchers use an unrealistic test to imply that vaping causes cancer.

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Vapor Puffs

A letter published by the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday reports a study in which researchers analyzed the aerosol produced by an e-cigarette tank system (a refillable vaporizer with a variable-voltage battery) and "did not detect the formation of any formaldehyde-releasing agents." Naturally, this finding seized the attention of news outlets around the country, leading to headlines such as "No Formaldehyde in Ecig Vapor" and "Study Confirms That Vaping Is Safer Than Smoking."

Just kidding. For some reason, reporters latched onto another result from the same study, suggesting that a vaper could inhale more than four times as much formaldehyde as a pack-a-day smoker. That finding led to headlines such as "E-Cigarettes Can Produce More Formaldehyde Than Regular Cigarettes, Study Says" and "E-Cigarette Vapor Filled With Cancer-Causing Chemicals, Researchers Say."

According to the researchers, the difference between those dramatically different results was the voltage setting. At low voltage, the tank system produced no formaldehyde; at high voltage, it produced lots of formaldehyde. But as Michael Siegel, a professor of public health at Boston University, points out on his tobacco policy blog, the conditions in the latter test were unrealistic, leading to overheating that would make a human vaper, as opposed to a machine, stop puffing:

The wattage being used was so high that the vaporizer was overheated…creating a horrible taste which a vaper could not tolerate. This is sometimes referred to as the "dry puff phenomenon." 

Based on calculations by Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos [a leading e-cigarette researcher] from data provided in the article, the resistance was no higher than 1.7 ohms. At a voltage of 5.0V, the wattage would be 14.7W. That is in the "red zone" where the vaporizer is being overheated and where, for a conventional e-cigarette, the coils would likely be damaged or burned. 

Essentially, what this study demonstrates is that if you overheat a vaping system, it will produce high levels of formaldehyde. However, such conditions are not realistic, as they could not be tolerated by an actual vaper. Therefore, extrapolating from this study to a lifetime of vaping is meaningless.

The researchers extrapolated anyway, estimating that vapers might face a formaldehyde-related cancer risk "5 times as high…or even 15 times as high…as the risk associated with long-term smoking." Later one of the researchers conceded that such speculation was a bit premature. "It's way too early now from an epidemiological point of view to say how bad [e-cigarettes] are," James Pankow, a professor of chemistry and engineering at Portland State University in Oregon, told NBC News. "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."

The implication—that vapers in the real world are apt to generate levels of formaldehyde similar to those generated by Pankow et al.'s machine—is highly misleading. "By setting their machine to repeatedly take three-to-four-second puffs at 5.0 volts, the researchers overheated the vaporizer," says Bill Godshall, executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania. "Vapers call this the 'dry puff phenomenon' and don't do it due to the very harsh and awful taste. By making a false assumption and by multiplying that false assumption over and over, the researchers got it all wrong. There is no scientific evidence that e-cigs increase risks for cancer or any other disease."

Pankow told NBC "we are not saying e-cigarettes are more hazardous than cigarettes," although that is the impression left by the NEJM letter. He noted that "we are only looking at one chemical" out of the thousands that can be found in tobacco smoke, of which hundreds are toxic or carcinogenic. "The jury is really out on how safe these drugs are," he said. According to Reuters, "Pankow conceded that the study could have contained more context about overall relative risk, but said the authors 'just wanted to get it out.'"

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  1. This study has to be accurate. There’s no financial incentive to lie about the results.

    1. “This study has to be accurate. There’s no financial incentive to lie about the results.”

      Oh no?

      http://fergusmason.com/?p=354

      1. Wow, good article. Thanks.

  2. Grasping at straws.

    Smoking and/or the appearance of smoking are, by definition, BAD.

    1. Animism FTW!

  3. Pankow conceded that the study could have contained more context about overall relative risk, but said the authors ‘just wanted to get it out.’

    You know who else ‘just wanted to get it out’?

      1. Ordon Wells? David carradine? That guy, from the brotherhood of Nod?

        1. Or even orson wells.

    1. ‘just wanted to get it out’

      I expend more effort trying to get ‘it’ in.

    2. Hitler?

    3. Sheriff in ‘Blazing Saddles’

  4. Well, there’s only way to settle a scientific controversy.

    Ask the Senate.

    1. Do you believe that vaping is not a hoax?

  5. Pankow told NBC “we are not saying e-cigarettes are more hazardous than cigarettes,”

    “We’re just trying to get you to think that anyway, because we’re fucking shills and scumbags.”

  6. This is like horse and buggywhip company paying for a study saying the Model A is more dangerous than the horse and carriage, but forgetting to say that their results were for driving the Model A at 100mph, which hey did by putting it on rails and pushing it downhill.

  7. Never report the truth when you can lie to create a controversy instead. -the media

    I keep waiting for the backlash against the media for this type of bullshit, but it never seems to materialize.

    1. They’re doing their best to look out for you, Frank. Don’t be so hard on them.

    2. Do we consider Gawker the media?

      1. Lol, no. Succubi are not journalists.

    3. There’s no backlash because most people have never consumed news for the news; people bought papers for the classifieds and had the TV on to make noise. We’re the dumb ones for paying attention.

  8. Essentially, what this study demonstrates is that if you overheat a vaping system, it will produce high levels of formaldehyde. However, such conditions are not realistic, as they could not be tolerated by an actual vaper. Therefore, extrapolating from this study to a lifetime of vaping is meaningless standard operating procedure.

    Also, does the “dry vape” setting cause burning lungs, headaches and dizziness? Because that’s undoubtedly what the kids are looking for in an electronic cig experience.

    1. Studies show most kids doing vaping are high on bath salts and indeed looking for that experience.

  9. Now that would be a fun name to have… Konstantinos Farsalinos Konstantinos Farsalinos Konstantinos Farsalinos… and I just taught my phone some new words.

  10. But the bottom line is, there are toxins

    So what you are saying is that it is not healthy to light a piece of plastic on fire and inhale it? Phew, good to know. It’s a good thing I also quit drinking oil years ago.

  11. Never underestimate the ability of busybodies to be busybodies. Any financial incentives are just a bonus.

  12. The methodology described here reminds me of the saccharine nonsense. I was a kid when they banned it, but my father told me that based on what they fed to the experimental animals, you would have to drink roughly a semi full of soda containing saccharine every day to replicate the risk factors.

    SCIENCE!

  13. Huh. I wonder if researchers in other fields ever do this sort of thing. Nah…

  14. What a crock Pankow is. I smoked for 20 years and switched to the ecig. After a month I was able to walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded. My legs no longer got painful knots in the muscles caused by high nicotine levels. I soon learned to make my own ejuice and slowly over a year reduced the amount of nicotine content until there was none. NONE! I successfully weaned myself off of both habits with no withdrawal symptoms at all. The ejuice I made had a base of food grade vegetable glycerin I bought at a HEALTH FOOD STORE! How do you get formaldehyde from vegetable glycerin? You don’t.
    You don’t get smoke from an ecig. It’s water vapor. A harmless substance unless you want to tie that into some sort of climate change issue where humidity causes death. Oh wait, it doesn’t.
    If someone is determined enough to quit smoking and has a hard time taking the cold turkey route or doesn’t like the nicotine gum that you can’t get in ever reducing amounts of nicotine, then the best way to successfully quit is the path I chose.
    I didn’t need a PhD to figure that one out. DUH!

  15. Formaldehyde Emission Climate Test Chamber applies for the measurement of formaldehyde emission in a man-made board, compound wood floor, carpet, carpet liner, carpet adhesive, and other indoor decorating materials. It can also process wood and man-made board with constant temperature and humidity technology. Other harmful gas from construction materials can also be detected as well. It might provide you with some help.

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