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Are vaping dangers real? A study in Hong Kong has found that e-cigarette smoke contains up 1,000,000 times the toxic chemical compounds found in outdoor air, even in China.

A study at Baptist University in Hong Kong has found that the vapor from e-cigarettes contains up to 1,000,000 times more cancer-causing chemicals than ordinary outdoor air. As a result, the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, which commissioned the research, called for a ban on e-cigarettes as soon as possible fearing that they will become more popular.

What Are the Toxic Compounds in E-Cigarettes?

Analyzing 13 popular brands of e-cigarettes currently on sale in Hong Kong, the Baptist University scientists found a variety of toxins in the smoke.

  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are a group of 100 chemicals that are formed in the incomplete burning of trash, coal, gasoline (petrol), and diesel. They are also found in oil spills, coal tar, and creosote. Pregnant women who are exposed to PAHs bear children who are more likely to suffer anxiety, asthma, depression, and ADHD. At least 10 chemicals in this group are associated with higher risks of lung cancer. Eight countries ban products that cause these chemicals to come in contact with the mouth or lungs. The Chinese researchers found that vaping smoke had concentrations of PAHs up to one million times higher than in roadside air.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers(PBDEs), a group of flame retardant chemicals used extensively in furniture and electronic products, are found in concentrations of up to 1490 nanograms per milliliter in vaping smoke. To be fair, these chemicals are also found in conventional cigarette smoke, but only in concentrations of 5.6 to 6.3 nanograms per milliliter, less than 1/2 of 1 percent as much. These chemicals interfere with the thyroid health, and they also interfere with the development of sex organs in the fetus when the mother is exposed to them before birth.
  • Most products tested by the research group did not list nicotine as an ingredient, but contained it in significant amounts. Even the products that claimed to be nicotine-free contained nicotine.

The Hong Kong researchers did not release measurements of particulate matter, which is essentially "soot," but American researchers have found that vaping and e-cigarettes release almost as much particulate pollution as conventional (even filtered) cigarettes.

Why Hong Kong Health Officials Are Concerned About Vaping

There are two major reasons that the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health are eager to ban e-cigarettes as soon as possible. One reason is that the carcinogenic effects of the chemicals discovered in e-cigarettes vapor are cumulative. The more often you smoke, the more your risk of lung cancer goes up. The other reason for concern is that most users of vaping devices are aged 20 to 29. They will accumulate more of the toxic chemicals than they would if they had started later in life, and they are approaching the prime years for having babies.

Regulation of e-cigarettes is probably simpler in China, or Hong Kong, than in many other countries. However, these and similar findings lend support to efforts to regulate or ban e-cigarettes in the European Union, Australia, Canada, and the United States. 

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Bahl V, Shim HJ, Jacob P 3rd, Dias K, Schick SF, Talbot P. Thirdhand smoke: Chemical dynamics, cytotoxicity, and genotoxicity in outdoor and indoor environments. Toxicol In Vitro. 2015 Dec 10. 32:220-231. doi: 10.1016/j.tiv.2015.12.007. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 26689327.
  • Blair SL, Epstein SA, Nizkorodov SA, Staimer N. A Real-Time Fast-Flow Tube Study of VOC and Particulate Emissions from Electronic, Potentially Reduced-Harm, Conventional, and Reference Cigarettes. Aerosol Sci Technol. 2015. 49(9):816-827. PMID: 26726281,
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