Formaldehyde is considered a “known human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. (Photo: Getty Images)
E-cigarettes may not be as “safe” an alternative to cigarette smoking as hoped, according to a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers found “hidden” high levels of the known carcinogen formaldehyde in popular tank-system e-cigarettes, by way of formaldehyde-releasing agents given off during the vaping process.
They discovered that when vaping 3 milligrams of liquid at high voltage, e-cigs can generate around 14 milligrams of formaldehyde, which is then inhaled by a smoker.
By contrast, the scientists suggest that a tobacco smoker would take in roughly .15 milligrams of formaldehyde in a standard cigarette, equating to around 3 milligrams in a 20-pack.
“This estimate is conservative because we did not collect all of the aerosolized liquid, nor did we collect any gas-phase formaldehyde,” the researchers write in their paper.
E-cigarettes are very new, largely untested, and not yet regulated, so it’s impossible to say right now whether they are more or less harmful than smoking regular cigarettes — especially since there are thousands of chemicals in standard cigarettes, and formaldehyde is only one.
However, the effects could be huge, the researchers say. They explain that long-term vaping may up lifetime cancer risk by five to 15 times when compared to long-term smoking in a roughly 150-pound person. And there’s the question of whether formaldehyde in cigarettes is as bad a cancer culprit as some believe it to be, and if the formaldehyde-releasing agents behave similarly — or worse — to gaseous formaldehyde in the respiratory tract.
“Formaldehyde-releasing agents may deposit more efficiently in the respiratory tract than gaseous formaldehyde, and so they could carry a higher slope factor for cancer,” the researchers write.
Formaldehyde is a chemical found in cigarette smoke, pressed-wood products, and fuel-burning appliances, and has been linked with leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Again, the scientists stress there’s no way to know conclusively the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes yet, as they are so new to the market. But this new finding just adds to evidence showing their potential health risks.