E-cigarette vapor contains hidden formaldehyde

Something for the “gross” file: Researchers have discovered that e-cigarette vapor contains formaldehyde.

Researchers have long known cigarette smoke contains formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. But, at least initially, many thought e-cigarette vapor didn’t pose those dangers because the electronic devices don’t have fire to cause combustion and release the chemicals.

Portland State University researchers, however, learned that the vapor can contain formaldehyde – and at levels higher than regular cigarettes. Their findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine this month.

“The popular ‘tank system’ e-cigarettes allow users to really turn up the heat and deliver high amounts of vapor, or e-cigarette smoke,” said David H. Peyton, PSU chemistry professor and lead researcher, in a news release. “Our research shows that when heated at higher temperatures, e-cigarette juices can vaporize and form large amounts of ‘hidden formaldehyde,’ five to 15 times higher than the amount of formaldehyde in traditional cigarettes.”

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. It is a colorless, strong-smelling gas, commonly used as an adhesive in building materials, such as particle board, and in mortuaries as an embalming fluid. Formaldehyde is also used as an industrial fungicide, germicide and disinfectant, according to the news release.

E-cigarette devices and their liquids are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“E-cigarettes are becoming more complicated and more like real cigarettes by the day,” said PSU professor James F. Pankow, who participated in the study, in the news release. “They use extremely high temperatures to vaporize their fluids and contain high levels of chemical additives. … No one should assume e-cigarettes are safe.”

“For conventional cigarettes, once people become addicted, it takes numerous years of smoking to result in a high risk of lung cancer and other severe disease; it will probably take five to 10 years to start to see whether e-cigarettes are truly as safe as some people believe them to be,” he added.

Marissa Harshman

Marissa Harshman

I'm the health reporter for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. I started at The Columbian -- my hometown newspaper -- in September 2009. Reach me at marissa.harshman@columbian.com or 360-735-4546.

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