It sounds like one of those urban legends or sensational headlines meant to scare the public – “Electronic cigarettes contain deadly formaldehyde!” In 2015, however, researchers from Portland State University in Oregon published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine claiming just that. They had detected the presence of previously undiscovered forms of formaldehyde in e-cigarette vapor. Not only that, but it was at levels five to 15 times higher than the formaldehyde in regular cigarettes. These chemicals were only detected when the vaping devices were turned up to the high end of their heat settings, however, which led to some criticism. Advocates for e-cigarettes argued that using the high settings would produce an unpleasant taste, and that most people would never turn the device up so high. The study has been a point of contention for years. Now, scientists from that same university have published a new study, not only backing the previous results but concluding that the risk posed by the formaldehyde was even greater than they had previously believed.
The new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that both gaseous formaldehyde and the newly discovered formaldehyde compounds were detectable at levels above OSHA workplace limits even when e-cigarettes were used at lower heat settings. gaseous formaldehyde, as the name suggests, exists as a water-soluble gas, and it usually ends up in the upper respiratory tract. The new compounds, on the other hand, are bound to particulates in the aerosols in e-cigarettes, which enables them to be deposited deeper in the lungs.
Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring compound, but it’s also found in emissions from vehicles that run on gasoline and diesel fuels. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 listed formaldehyde as a toxic air pollutant subject to regulatory action. It can be found in certain industrial settings, as it’s an ingredient in some products like glue and cleaners. It’s also used in mortuaries as an ingredient in the embalming fluid used to preserve bodies. Exposure can cause problems such as itching or burning of the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, wheezing, and nausea. Most concerning, however, are its links to cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen, meaning it has the potential to cause cancer in humans. One study of funeral industry workers found that those people who spent the most time embalming and being exposed to formaldehyde had the greatest risk of a rare type of cancer called myeloid leukemia. The five-year overall survival rate for is myeloid leukemia is 26 percent.
The study didn’t use human test subjects, so there’s no way of knowing exactly what effects the chemical might have on people who use electronic cigarettes. Clearly, though, if formaldehyde is present in e-cigarettes in any significant levels, that poses a serious health risk.
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