In a study released on April 24, researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health identified a new potential risk posed by electronic cigarettes, which have been on the market for years. Until now, consumers likely had no idea that many popular brands of e-cigarettes may be contaminated by bacterial and fungal toxins.
While the detection of these toxins is certainly a red flag, the levels at which they have been detected require more research rather than immediate action, according to the study’s authors. They still do not know, for example, the extent to which humans are exposed to contaminates after e-liquids are aerosolized.
Earlier this month, another study found evidence that e-cigs may cause cell damage, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement concerning e-cigarettes and seizures. In February, a separate Harvard study found that the chemical flavorings in e-cigarettes may impair lung function.
David Christiani, senior author of the most recent study said that, “Finding these toxins in e-cigarette products adds to the growing concerns about the potential for adverse respiratory effects in users.”
The truth about e-cigarettes is that the risks are not yet fully understood. Because these products are so new, there have not been long-term studies done on long-term users. Until this study was published, no one was even looking for this kind of contamination. In other words, people have been using these products for years without knowing the risks.
The Bacterial and Fungal Toxins Found in E-Cigarettes
The Harvard researchers analyzed e-cigarettes specifically for contamination by endotoxin and glucan, 2 microbial toxins that have been linked to a host of adverse effects in prior studies, including:
- reduced lung function
- increase in nonatopic asthma,
- bronchial hyper-responsiveness and peripheral leucocyte count
- airflow obstruction
The study evaluated 75 e-cigarettes products from the top 10 most popular brands of first-generation e-cigarettes. Researchers sampled from both cartridges and e-liquids, but limited their sample set to high-nicotine products. What they found was that:
- 23 percent of e-cigarettes tested positive for endotoxin
- 81 percent of e-cigarettes tested positive for glucan
- E-cigarette cartridges had an average glucan concentration 3.2 times higher than that in e-liquids.
- Tobacco-flavored products had an average glucan concentration 10 times higher than those with fruit-flavors.
- Menthol-flavored products had an average glucan concentration 3.5 times higher than those with fruit-flavors.
The study only analyzed first-generation e-cigarettes, sometimes referred to as “cigalikes.” They did not test any of the newer e-cigarette products, like pens, tanks, or pods, the last of which has become popular with millions of teens.
Given that these newer products, especially the fourth-generation pods, becoming much more popular than their older counterparts, there should be no delay in screening such products for microbial toxins.
Big Tobacco Is Evolving — Are Regulators?
At a time when science suggests restraint with regards to e-cigarettes, the opposite is unfortunately happening.
E-cigarette use is rising at the fastest-recorded rate for any substance. Millions of the new users are teenagers who have never touched traditional tobacco before. Many will likely be saddled by a lifetime of nicotine addiction and studies show that many will turn to traditional cigarettes.
This is to say nothing of the other dangers associated with e-cigarettes that we are only now discovering. In a press release about the presence of microbial toxins, the study’s lead author Mi-Sun Lee said: “These new findings should be considered when developing regulatory policies for e-cigarettes.”
Will regulators listen? Will they take action? There is only so much time left to intervene. E-cigarettes are being produced as fast as the factories can run, and the market is betting hard on Big Tobacco’s new look as Big Vape.
With or without the research to back up claims that their product is safe and effective, e-cigarette manufacturers are going to flood the market if they can. They will continue to ship out millions of potentially dangerous products as they advise regulators to take their time.
Unless regulators force Big Vape to pump the brakes, its likely a new generation of kids is going to be hooked on the most potent nicotine delivery devices of all time. This outcome will be as good for corporate profits as it will be bad for the public health.
The question then remains: Which are policymakers interested in protecting?