Does Vaping Release Formaldehyde?

If you’re at all attuned to the coverage of e-cigarettes in the media, you will have noticed that the latest research making the rounds in health reporting warns us of the dangers of “Hidden Formaldehyde in E-Cigarette Aerosols.” According to a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at Portland State University have found that “more than 2% of the total solvent molecules [in e-cigarette liquid] have converted to formaldehyde releasing agents, reaching concentrations higher than concentrations of nicotine.” Given that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, the researchers warn that, at least with respect to that particular class of molecules, vaping is even worse than smoking. Before you throw your vaping device in the trash and run over to the gas station to pick up a pack of Pall Malls, let me propose several objections and try to set your mind at ease.

First, the high levels of formaldehyde releasing molecules quoted here, and in many publications where the findings of this study have been disseminated, are only present when liquid is heated at high voltage. At low voltage, the researchers acknowledge that no formaldehyde releasing agents were found at all. At “medium” voltages (though these imprecise descriptions are obviously totally useless outside of the context of normal usage, where 3V might well be towards the higher end of possible voltages), it’s anyone’s guess. A logical follow-up to the initial research would be to attempt to assess the voltage, or, better yet, the wattage at which common users vape, and to calibrate the average voltages used in the study to accurately model real-life vaping conditions. This, combined with a method of extracting smoke that would actually accurately mimic human smoking (it is unclear how the vapor was extracted in this study), would actually lend some credibility and context to the results gathered. While this calibration should have been a part of the study to begin with, do the researchers at least plan to address these problems in follow-up studies? It appears not. A remark made to NPR by one of the researchers indicates that he is convinced that regular vapers do in fact use e-cigarettes and other vaping devices at high voltages, primarily because ”as [he] walks around town and look[s] at people using these electronic cigarette devices it’s not difficult to tell what sort of setting they’re using. You can see how much of the aerosol they’re blowing out. It’s not small amounts.” Impeccable adherence to the scientific method, Dr. Peyton.

Second, both the media and the study itself have failed to justify the implied link between the detection of “formaldehyde releasing molecules” and the actual exposure of lung tissue to formaldehyde. The researchers do admit that “how formaldehyde-releasing agents behave in the respiratory tract is unknown,” yet they proceed to base the entirety of the paper on the premise that there is a 1:1 correspondence between these compounds. What is most striking here is that these molecules are formaldehyde releasing precisely because they only release formaldehyde under specific circumstances. Without further details about exactly which formaldehyde hemiacetals were detected in this study, not much more can be said on the topic, but it suffices to say that their presence does not in any way justify the conclusion that formaldehyde, the carcinogenic agent with all its reactive potential, is released into the lungs as a consequence of vaping, even at a high voltage. A quick look at the literature cited in the footnotes does nothing to alleviate this worry.

Third, and most damning, I think, is the direct implication of this study: that vaping is potentially even more dangerous than smoking. While it is unclear to me whether that was the initial intent of the researchers, reporting on the study (and it has been extensive) often hints that vaping might not, after all, be better than smoking. Framing the study in those terms is absolutely unconscionable, as it fails to remind the public that even if the numbers somehow turn out to be accurate, vaping is still, as far as we know, not even comparable to smoking in the dangers it poses to the regular vaper.

In short, this study and the reporting surrounding it appear to basically be another instance of morally motivated blindness to actual scientific shortcomings. So, for now, I would advise patience, and, if you’re at all worried, maybe lowering the power at which you use your vape.

Happy vaping!

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