E-cigarette controversy over potential new cancer risk

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  • Published: Jan 26, 2015
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: NMR Knowledge Base
thumbnail image: E-cigarette controversy over potential new cancer risk

People who smoke e-cigarettes can be exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde, so increasing their risk of cancer, according to a new report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

E-cigarettes with the tank system to store the liquids were "vaped" to produce the nicotine vapour and formaldehyde acetal was detected by NMR spectroscopy as a decomposition product of propylene glycol and glycerol, which are present in the liquid tank. While the behaviour of the acetal is unclear, it is known as a formaldehyde-releasing agent and formaldehyde itself is a strong carcinogen.

The acetal was only produced in the type of cigarette where the smoker can boost the electric current to release more nicotine. At lower voltages of 3.3 V, none of the acetal was detected but at 5.0 V, there was sufficient to be recorded. In fact, the research team calculated that the amount of formaldehyde represented a 5-15-fold greater lifetime risk of cancer than that estimated from smoking tobacco cigarettes.

"I think this is just one more piece of evidence amid a number of pieces of evidence that e-cigarettes are not absolutely safe," says David Peyton who was part of the research team.

Advocates of e-cigarettes disagree with the conclusions, arguing that the real users of e-cigarettes would not smoke them under the conditions described in the study. They also point out that tobacco smoke contains several thousand chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic, so are far riskier than e-cigarettes.

What the study does emphasise is the paucity of knowledge of the health risks associated with e-cigarettes which were introduced to the world without any genuine assessment of their safety.

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