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Do E-Cigarettes Cause Cell Damage?

A study by National Jewish Health was recently released claiming e-cigarettes liquid, whether it contains nicotine or not, could damage cells and increase the risk of infection. The study, performed by doctors at the health center in Denver, believes that inhaling e-cigarette vapor damages the epithelial cells in the human airway.

“We took cells from the airways of young, healthy non-smokers and exposed them to the liquid or vapors from e-cigarettes in the lab and in as little as 10 minutes we saw a dramatic reaction,” said Hong Wei Chu, MD, director of the Basic Science Section at National Jewish Health and head doctor of the study. “The cells showed a strong pro-inflammatory response and the risk of viral infection in those cells rose significantly,” he said.

These findings have some people running scared, as the use of e-cigarettes and the overall popularity of vaping has skyrocketed at extremely rapid levels. David Tinkleman, MD is the director of Health Initiatives at National Jewish Health, and he admits that studies are not as prevalent as he would like them to be. “In the last 4 or 5 years, it’s [e-cigarettes] exploded. Unfortunately, the science behind e-cigarettes has not exploded at the same time. We still don’t fully understand the effects e-cigarettes have on our bodies or the risks they might pose.”

For the National Jewish Health study, researchers constructed a machine in which they put human cells they gathered from the airways at one end, and at the other end they attached an electronic cigarette. The machine simulated human use by applying suction. The vapor produced by that suction then went through tubes to the container holding the human cells. The finding suggest that the cells begin to show damage almost immediately.

“Epithelial cells are the first line of defense in our airways and they protect our bodies from anything dangerous we might inhale,” said Qun Wu, MD, PhD, another researcher who worked on the study. “Once those cells were exposed to the liquid or vapors from e-cigarettes, it triggered a strong immune response,” she said.

These findings are coming as the popularity of e-cigarettes is higher than it ever has been before. In 2010, less than 2 percent of adults in the U.S. had tried e-cigarettes. Last year the number of adults who had tried vaping topped 40 million, nearly 13 percent of the population, a huge increase for an only 3 year time period. That startling growth is also reflected in the youth population as well, which has critics of e-cigarettes worried about their appeal to children.

Dr. Tinkleman of National Jewish Health is one of those worried. He is concerned, as many are, with the flavors that e-cigarettes offer. “When you flavor them [e-cigarettes] in that way, not only are they more appealing but young people might falsely assume they are safe to use,” he said. “That is an inherently dangerous situation when you’re talking about use among children and teenagers, especially.” TInkleman’s involvement in the study was limited though he is the director of Health Initiatives at the health center in Denver. One thing his statement makes clear is that he has a bias against e-cigarettes that is unrelated to the findings of the study, which have nothing to do with appealing flavors or rising youth use.

This study, is one of just a few studies released that is proposing a significant health danger associated with e-cigs. Most have concluded that e-cigarettes are not only a safer alternative to traditional smoking, but that they may even be used to help people quit smoking. It is important to remember, it is not vaping that is on trial here. The findings from the National Jewish Health study are clear that it is the liquid in the e-cigarette, not the vaping process, or the nicotine. This is one of the reasons why this study may just be bringing up more questions than it is answering.
What e-liquids are they testing? There are thousands of e-liquids on the market, and while there are only three main ingredients in e-liquid, propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin, flavorings and nicotine, the press release from National Jewish Health does not make it clear what e-liquid products they tested. While it is clear they tested different nicotine levels, what brands and flavors did they test? Were they made in the USA or imported? In addition, what device was used and where was it made? In previous studies, there have been findings suggesting that toxic material can come from poorly made e-cigarette devices. Did they use only one device, or did they use a variety of different styles?

There is also no evidence of the long-term effect in this study. They know that the cells showed some signs of damage, but the press release only reports what the cells experience up to a 48 hour point. There is no way to tell if the so-called cell damage is long-term or permanent. The truth is, the worst case scenario isn’t even that bad. In reality all they really claim is that e-cigarettes increase the chance for a viral infection. Yes, this sounds nasty, but really, how bad is it? If the alternative to inhaling smoke and tar and increasing your risk of cancer, is a greater risk of catching a cold, is that really that bad?

Sure no one wants to get sick, and lung infections can be somewhat dangerous too, but if you are trying to kick the smoking habit, you may decide that the risk is worth the reward. Still, this is only one of very limited studies that exist regarding e-cigarettes, and until more information is obtained and verified, e-cigs are still without doubt a safer alternative to traditional smokes, and you’ll find very few, if any, doctors who will argue that.

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