While many people tout e-cigarettes as being relatively harmless alternatives to traditional cigarettes, they might not be as safe as everyone thinks. E-cigarettes have been found to produce highly-reactive molecules called free radicals that are associated with both cell damage and cancer.
The news comes as the use of e-cigarettes is continuing to rise. Reports from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that more than 20% of all young adults in America have tried e-cigarettes. Most people who use e-cigarettes still smoke regular cigarettes as well, or they have only recently quit.
E-cigarettes function by delivering nicotine through water vapor instead of burning tobacco. They are typically marketed as a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes. But despite their popularity, there is not much known about the toxic substances that are produced by e-cigarettes.
Professor of public health sciences and pharmacology John P. Richie Jr. said, “There's a perception that e-cigarettes are healthier than regular cigarettes, or at least not as harmful as regular cigarettes. While e-cigarette vapor does not contain many of the toxic substances that are known to be present in cigarette smoke, it's still important for us to figure out and to minimize the potential dangers that are associated with e-cigarettes."
In previous studies, it has been shown that there are low levels of aldehydes in the vapor of e-cigarettes. These chemical compounds can cause both oxidative stress and cell damage. Meanwhile, the free radicals that have recently been discovered have been shown to be a primary component of cancer caused by cigarette smoke. These free radicals have also been linked to cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Rather than producing smoke, e-cigarettes produce aerosols, which consist of tiny liquid particles that are suspended in a puff of air. However, the amount of free radicals within the aerosols of e-cigarettes is still substantially less than that of traditional cigarettes. That being said, the discovered level of free radicals still represents dangerous levels. It is believed that the free radicals are produced when the nicotine is heated to extremely high temperatures.
Richie Jr. said, “This is the first study that demonstrates the fact that we have these highly reactive agents in e-cigarette aerosols. The levels of radicals that we're seeing are more than what you might get from a heavily air-polluted area but less than what you might find in cigarette smoke."
For now, more research is needed in order to better determine the health effects that occur from the exposure to free radicals.
Richie Jr. explained, “This is the first step. The identification of these radicals in the aerosols means that we can't just say e-cigarettes are safe because they don't contain tobacco. They are potentially harmful. Now we have to find out what the harmful effects are."
Currently, Richie Jr. is conducting studies to measure the total number of free radicals that are contained in aerosols produced by e-cigarettes. He is also working to identify the chemical structures of the free radicals.