Are E-Cigarettes Really Dangerous? Here’s What the Studies Say

It may be hard to believe, but the futuristic vaporizers, known as e-cigarettes, have been on the market for almost 9 years. They are now a multi-billion dollar industry, having doubled in value to $6 Billion between 2013 and 2014. Introduced to the U.S. in 2007, the pocket-sized devices were originally touted as a possibly safer alternative to conventional cigarettes, but recent studies (and incidents) question whether the new technology is really "safe" at all.

A heated debate between researchers and industry professionals has been raging over whether it's fair to say that e-cigarettes are at least "safer" than cigarettes, even if they are more dangerous than not smoking (or vaping) anything at all. It will take years for scientists to reach conclusions, so it’s simply too early to know the one definitive answer.

Lack of Regulation in the E-Cigarette Industry

Consumers and parents should be most worried about the fact that e-cigarettes are completely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are no legal limits for the amount or combination of chemicals used in any given e-cigarette and there are no agencies overseeing e-cigarette manufacturers to ensure safety. This lack of regulation is why more than 2 dozen e-cigarettes have exploded while in use – a number that is only increasing.

The thing that’s scary about this, is that e-cigarette manufacturers can cut whatever corners they see fit, using second-rate materials or infusing their liquid nicotine with any number of chemical compounds, and the public won’t know if it’s dangerous until people have already been injured. Some e-cigarettes may be a slightly better alternative for smokers and some possibly not; the one-two punch of no federal regulation and no conclusive, scientific studies makes it so that neither consumers nor researchers can fully comprehend the dangers of this new technology.

While the dangers of e-cigarettes may not be fully understood, what we do know is that they’ve exploded on users and caused serious bodily harm.

Unknown Amounts of Toxic Chemicals in E-Cigarettes

The liquid compound used in e-cigarettes, known as “e-liquid” or “e-juice”, contains some toxic and potentially carcinogenic chemicals, including the lethal substance formaldehyde, albeit at lower levels than in traditional cigarettes. A 2014 study found that higher-voltage vaporizers release substantially more formaldehyde than lower-voltage models. E-cigarettes also contain “free radicals” – toxic agents that can cause molecular and cellular damage to the body. The number of free radicals in e-cigarettes are substantially lower than cigarettes, but they are still high enough to be damaging.

Perhaps the most talked about and dangerous chemical in common vaporizer brands is diacetyl, which is used for flavoring. According to a study conducted at Harvard University, diacetyl was found in 75 percent of major e-juice brands. Diacetyl is known to cause a condition called “popcorn lung,” named after the popcorn factory workers who fell sick from inhaling the vapors in artificial butter flavoring. Popcorn lung, formally called bronchiolitis obliterans, is a serious and completely irreversible respiratory disease. It scars the lungs, damages the throat, and makes breathing increasingly difficult over time.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University also found that e-liquid may damage the lungs, though the results are not yet conclusive. Scientists exposed mice to e-cigarette vapor, and found that they were more likely to suffer weakness in their immune systems, leading to respiratory conditions like pneumonia and sinusitis.

When discussing the chemical dangers of e-cigarettes, it’s important to point out that standard tobacco cigarettes also contain diacetyl and formaldehyde – 10 to 100 times more than e-cigarettes. However, e-cigarettes have only been on the market for 9 years and many more experiments will need to be conducted before the long-term effects are truly understood.

Faulty E-Cigarette Batteries Can Explode

Another drawback to the utter lack of e-cigarette regulations is that the devices themselves are not inspected for safety. Twenty-nine-year-old Cordero Caples of Colorado Springs was vaping with a Kangertech® brand e-cigarette when it exploded in his mouth. The device blew apart with such force that it broke Cordero's neck, shattered his teeth, and severely burned his face. In another incident, an e-cigarette battery exploded inside of the pocket of a 19-year-old grocery store worker. The explosion left severe wounds on the teen’s leg.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported 25 separate e-cigarette explosions between 2009 and 2014; however, there have likely been even more as claims there were at least 15 e-cigarette explosions in 2015 alone.

Unlike the potential chemical harm caused by e-cigarettes, the harm caused by explosions is very real and observable. Three victims in California have already filed lawsuits against vaporizer stores and e-cigarette manufacturers for severe injuries.

The problem – similar to the holiday season hoverboard fiasco – is cheap manufacturing. Because e-cigarettes are unregulated, companies take whatever shortcuts necessary to pump out the most product in the cheapest fashion possible. Disreputable companies use cheap lithium-ion batteries that are prone to short-circuiting and, eventually, exploding. It doesn't help matters that e-cigarettes are shaped like miniature gun barrels, capable of launching a flaming battery yards away at a high velocity.

Many of these explosion risks are greatly minimized in decent quality vaporizers. High-end products include a battery management system – like the kinds used in electric cars – to ensure that the battery is cooled or shut off before it explodes.

Targeting the Youth

E-cigarette advocates point out that vaporizers seem to be less dangerous than conventional cigarettes and may even be a useful way to quit smoking. On the other hand, many e-cigarette companies offer kid-oriented flavors like cotton candy, bubble gum, and gummy bear that seem designed to hook new customers. Sweet, candy-like e-liquids combined with a lack of regulation and age restriction, makes it very easy for minors to buy e-cigarettes online. A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report found that over 250,000 teenagers reported using an e-cigarette, though they'd never smoked a regular cigarette. Studies also show that kids who start out smoking e-cigarettes are twice as likely to smoke regular cigarettes later.

Targeting children was a strategy used by Big Tobacco decades ago. Perhaps not surprisingly, Big Tobacco currently owns some of the most popular e-cigarette models. The Altria Group, Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris, has hired more than 400 scientists and spent $2 Billion on supposed research to prove to the FDA that e-cigarettes are safe. Some experts see this as a ploy for cigarette companies to expand into the new, less frowned-upon industry of vaporizers.

For Now, the Biggest Problem Remains Lack of Regulation

Are e-cigarettes a health risk? The most honest answer is “yes.” While some health professionals and scientists still think it may be useful as a smoking cessation tool, other experts argue that, while the chemicals used in e-cigarettes, like propylene glycol, have been deemed safe for use in food products, their safety when heated, vaporized, and inhaled is still in question.

Any time a person inhales superheated chemicals the results are not going to be ideal and it does seem likely that e-cigarettes are more harmful than not smoking or vaping anything at all. However, the much greater risk presented by e-cigarettes at the moment is their lack of federal regulation. The question is less, “are e-cigarettes safe as a whole?” and more, “how can we ensure that shady manufacturers don’t sneak highly lethal toxins into a widely used product?” Whether or not a company can make a relatively safe vaporizer is still up for debate, but companies will only make such a product if they’re forced to do so by federal law.

For now, e-cigarettes remain a gamble. However, the key players in this game are Big Tobacco and multi-billion dollar chemical manufacturing companies – 2 groups that in the past have not shied away from mass-marketing poison. The question consumers must ask themselves is if they really want to gamble with their health when the deck already seems stacked against them.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: December 28, 2016