Children’s Lungs Could Be Especially Vulnerable to E-Cigarette Vapor
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, have become popular in the last few years among many people trying to quit regular cigarettes; they were heralded when they were introduced as a much safer way for people to get the nicotine they want, without the thousands of chemicals that are often present in conventional cigarettes.
But new studies are beginning to show that e-cigarettes may not be as safe as consumers were led to believe. One new study has found that vapor from these cigarettes may increase young people’s susceptibility to respiratory infections, including infection by rhinovirus, the most common cold virus.
Researchers took samples of lung tissue from children between 8 and 10 who had passed away and donated their organs to medical science; the cells were cultured in a lab. The reason the research team used cells from younger children is that it wanted to measure the effect of e-cigarette vapor in younger age groups.
When exposed to vapor from an e-cigarette in the lab, cells appeared to become damaged. The vapor caused a strong immune response in epithelial cells — cells that line the inside of the lungs and protect lungs from damage.
The vapor caused the cells to release IL-6 (interleukin 6), a signaling protein that leads to inflammation — an immune system response — and is involved in regeneration of damaged tissue. Researchers found that this response occurred even when the vapor had no nicotine; however, the presence of nicotine slightly increased the release of IL-6. Once the cells had been exposed to the vapor, they were also more readily infected by rhinovirus.
Previous studies had found that when a person smokes an e-cigarette and is then tested, their airway shows inflammation. Inflammation is a sign of injury.
The study results, published recently in the journal PLOS ONE, come out at a time when e-cigarettes have increased sharply in popularity among adults, as well as high school and middle school students, just a few years after they went on the market.
E-cigarettes are often marketed as aids to help people quit smoking. Background information provided with the study stated that more than 40 million adults in the United States had tried e-cigarettes by 2014, many times the number who had tried them in 2010. Close to 1.8 million children and teenagers in the U.S. had tried e-cigarettes by 2012.
The results of the above study appear to indicate that even though e-cigarettes may be an improvement over conventional tobacco cigarettes, they are not an entirely healthy option, and the best choice still is not to smoke either regular or e-cigarettes.
Ingredients on E-Cigarettes Are Still Toxic
People who use e-cigarettes avoid inhaling smoke and potentially thousands of chemicals in that smoke into their lungs, unlike regular cigarette smokers. However, they are still depositing other known or possibly harmful chemicals in the lungs.
These can include artificial flavors, scents containing phthalates (hormone-disrupting synthetic chemicals), artificial colors, and propylene glycol (PG), a chemical used in foods as a preservative and thickening agent that can come from petroleum products or vegetable glycerin.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies propylene glycol as safe when used in small amounts, some past studies have linked it to possible allergic reactions.
Two studies with cats found that when PG was added to cats’ diets in very small amounts, it damaged some hemoglobin cells in their red blood cells (hemoglobin is the protein that carries oxygen to all tissues); small increases of the compound in the cats’ diets reduced the number and survival rate of red blood cells. (Source: National Institutes of Health Toxicology Data Network.)
Though most people use e-cigarettes as a smokeless way to obtain nicotine, not all e-cigarette vaporizing liquids contain nicotine.
Currently, there are no national guidelines in the U.S. for the sale and use of e-cigarettes; however, most states prohibit sales to minors, and some states prohibit using e-cigarettes in public places, to reflect laws governing use of regular cigarettes. Some health authorities have called on the federal government to regulate e-cigarettes in a similar way as regular cigarettes.
Other Possible Problems with E-Cigarettes
Just like with conventional cigarettes, different companies are making e-cigarettes; the devices have different designs, depending on the maker. Some of them, made in China, were tested at different U.S. labs, and when researchers heated and analyzed the liquids inside them, they found tiny (invisible to the eye) particles of tin that had come off the inside of the cigarettes, and which, according to a medical expert, could be deposited in an e-cigarette smoker’s lungs, and may even be small enough to enter the person’s bloodstream.
Critics of e-cigarettes also point out that as many as 80 percent of all e-cigarette smokers also smoke regular cigarettes; these critics believe that in the end, e-cigarettes are not as helpful for quitting tobacco cigarettes as the manufacturers claim.
Some health advocates raise concerns that e-cigarettes may be especially attractive to many teens, due to the fruity, sweet flavors used in the liquids. These critics believe that e-cigarettes may wind up being a new route for adolescents to get hooked on nicotine.
Cigarette smoking among teenagers is at an all-time high. Experts recommend that parents model healthy behavior for their children by not smoking and that they talk to them about the harm that cigarettes and e-cigarettes, and secondhand smoke or vapor can do to their health.
Smokers should also consider natural ways to relieve stress and relax, such as getting regular exercise, picking up a hobby or playing with a pet.
By Lisa Pecos