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Is there Formaldehyde in Your E-Cigarette Vapor?

The New England Journal of Medicine recently released a preliminary study that is bringing into question a new concern about the risks of using electronic cigarettes claiming a certain level of usage could expose the user to formaldehyde.

You remember formaldehyde, that unmistakable smell from that day you had to dissect a frog in your junior high school science class. In addition to its use for embalming, formaldehyde is also a substance use in industrial strength disinfectant and is an ingredient in permanent-press fabrics, many glues, plywood and a whole host of other household products. Formaldehyde is also in that old fashioned, tobacco cigarette as well.

The study, release on January 22, 2015 shows that under certain conditions, taking approximately 10 puffs from an e-cigarette could expose a user to about two and a half times as much formaldehyde as he or she would get from smoking just one tobacco cigarette. Inhaling formaldehyde is, as you would imagine, a major health concern.

The Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer warns of the dangers of formaldehyde stating the chemical can cause leukemia and even nasopharyngeal cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also warns of the substance and considers the chemical a “probable human carcinogen.”

The study evaluated experiments that were conducted at Portland State University, in which researchers used a tank system type of electronic cigarette to produce the nicotine vapor. The e-liquid vapor was then captured in a tube to be analyzed using a technique that is called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Each tube sample consisted of approximately 10 puffs of vapor (at about 3 to 4 seconds per puff) that was collected over a 5 minute period.

What the researchers found was that when the e-cigarette was used on the “low voltage” setting of 3.3 volts, they didn’t detect any formaldehyde in the vapor. None… zero. However, when the device was on the “high voltage” setting of 5 volts, the researchers measured an average of 380 micrograms of formaldehyde per sample.

Based on these results, the research team concluded that an e-cigarette user who vaped 3 milliliters of e-liquid per day would breathe in at least 14.4 milligrams of formaldehyde if they vaped at that high voltage setting. In addition, they also warn that the actual daily exposure could be higher, because their experiments failed to capture all of the vapor that the e-cigarette was able to produced.

For comparison’s sake, the e-cigarette study can be paralleled to a 2005 study in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology which estimated that a person who smoked a pack of 20 traditional, combustible cigarettes would inhale 3 milligrams of formaldehyde in the process. Those researchers calculated that the lifetime cancer risk incurred by inhaling formaldehyde would be 5 to 15 times higher for long-term e-cigarette users than for long-term tobacco smokers.

While at first these findings seem like a pretty big blow to the e-cigarette industry, a slightly deeper inspection of the facts will reveal the invalidity of the claims in this study. E-cigarette experts are quick to contend with the methodology of this study, knowing that the condition simply don’t reflect the habits of an actual user. As many of you know, if you were to take a 4 second puff on a high voltage setting, you likely would not be satisfied. Bill Godshall, an advisor to the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association says if users vaped in reality the same way the e-cigarettes were manipulated in this study, they would experience a “very harsh and awful taste.”

Gregory Conley, who is president of the same group and an outspoken proponent of the e-cigarette industry, added that e-cigarette users tend to take shorter puffs as they increase the voltage on their devices. “These are not settings that real-life vapers actually use,” he said. There is no data for short puffs on high voltage settings, and no way to tell if the majority of users who vape at a higher power output truly would be at risk for more exposure to formaldehyde.

The study, while it will make for some sensational headlines, doesn't change the fundamental truth about e-cigarettes. No matter how you slice it, no matter what horrible sounding research studies you throw at them– they still are safer. Hands down, no argument. Even if the results in this study truly reflected real use, the significant decrease in harmful carcinogens between a traditional cigarette and an e-cigarette, would still be more than enough reason to justify vaping over smoking. The truth is, however, it is almost a moot point as average e-cigarette voltage and use result in little to no formaldehyde in the vapor at all.

If you are a vaper and are concerned about formaldehyde the solution is simple, user the lower voltage settings and continue vaping. The findings simply aren't too solid anyway, and until they have an experiment that honestly captures a realistic picture of e-cigarette use, you can rest easy knowing that your e-cigarette use is still leaps and bounds safer and healthier for you than that nasty old fashioned, tobacco cigarette.

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