© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Study of E-Cigarettes Reveals Brain-Damaging Lead in "Vaping"

Sodanie Chea/Flickr

It’s almost impossible to walk into a convenience store, pass a bus stop, or even to watch You Tube videos these days without being assaulted with ads for vaping or electronic cigarettes.

This online ad features a cool-looking young actor on the beach, with the surf crashing behind him.

“Blue e-cigs,” the narrator says. “Blue lets me enjoy smoking without it affecting the people around me because it’s vapor, not tobacco smoke. That means there’s no ash. And best of all, no offensive odor.”

But is that really true – that vaping does not affect the people around you?  That it’s harmless, creating no indoor air pollution?

“No,” said Ana Maria Rule, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It is definitely not smoking, that’s a good distinction to make.  However, I don’t know where people get this idea that (vaping) is harmless because the chemicals that are being heated up from the liquid are not harmless chemicals.”

Rule worked with 10 colleagues to conduct an investigation of e-cigarettes. The devices are essentially made of three parts:  A battery, which provides power; a tank, which holds a liquid that is heated up to produce an aerosol; and a mouth-piece, through which people suck the vapor into their lungs and then exhale it into the space around them.

The liquid, Rule said, is often flavored and advertised in a way to attract children and teenagers who have never smoked before – with tastes like cotton candy and fruit medley.

“Those liquids contain nicotine, and propylene glycol, glycerine, and other chemicals,” Rule said.

Nicotine, of course, is intensely addictive – although a few e-cigarettes have an option for nicotine-free cartridges. Propylene glycol is a sweet-tasting chemical that is the main ingredient in your car’s antifreeze.

But even more troublesome, Rule said, is that the heating coils in the e-cigarettes are made from metals that release their toxic particles into the vapor that people inhale and breathe out into public spaces.

The researchers asked 56 participants to bring in their e-cigarette devices – of various brands – for analysis.  The scientists found that many of the devices produced vapor that contained lead, which causes never and brain damage, and chromium, a cancer causing agent, at concentrations above limits established by the federal government, according to their peer-reviewed journal article published in Environmental Health Perspectives, titled, “Metal Concentrations in e-Cigarette Liquid and Aerosol Samples: The Contribution of Metallic Coils.

“We found lead in 50 percent of our samples above the health-based limit suggested by EPA,” Rule said. “And this is problematic because lead is a known neurotoxicant, which means that the health effects are on the brain directly, and the developing brains of younger adults – or the kids – have the highest susceptibility.”

About 40 percent of the vaping samples contained a metal called manganese at levels above what EPA would consider safe, Rule said.

“It has been shown that people who work with manganese develop this illness called manganism, which is a Parkinson’s like disease that deteriorates the brain.”

She added that anyone in a room with someone who is vaping is likely also inhaling these toxic metals and putting their health at risk.  Her advice:  Don’t start, or get addicted to vaping, with the mistaken belief that it’s just clouds of sweet-smelling water curling around you.

For a copy of Rule’s article, visit: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp2175/

This is a rebroadcast.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.