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Formaldehyde in E-Cigarettes?

Posted on January 30, 2015 by Vapor Widgets

More often than not, media coverage of any particular subject tends to be more of a sensationalist crusade than substantive reporting. With the small amount of time allotted to any one news story, it literally becomes impossible to review every piece of evidence surrounding a claim. So it's not much of a surprise that the media adheres to a strict rule of quick-and-easy headlines that are rarely a cause for questioning. While it is true that everything should come into question - it's highly corrosive to accept everything at face value - some of these reports gain traction, only to become misinterpreted and, subsequently, propagated by the public. 

Much of the same seems to be occurring today. Here are some of the recent headlines regarding the purported levels of formaldehyde found in e-cigs:

"Is Vaping Worse than Smoking" - NYTimes

"Before You Vape: High Levels of Formaldehyde in E-Cigs" - NBC News

"Some e-cigarettes may release more of a cancer-causing chemical than regular tobacco, study suggests" - DailyMail.com

While studying and analyzing e-cigarettes and the vapor produced is completely warranted, and in fact should be encouraged, reporting of the results should come in tandem with an understanding of how the results were obtained. This entails a complete overview of an article presented in a scientific journal that is typically written for and by members of the scientific community. The substance is lost amongst much of the jargon. Coupled with the technical verbosity, experimentation almost always has a fatal flaw - studies conducted in laboratory settings can seldom be applied to the real world. Although experimenters try as they might to emulate the 'normal' setting of the variables in question, control can only go so far.

And associated with creating a realistic setting is the realistic use of variables, in this case being electronic cigarettes and their production of vapor. With this in mind, we turn to the operable variables examined in the article presented in The New England Journal of Medicine titled, "Hidden Formaldehyde in E-Cigarette Aerosols." 

It is not uncommon to find personal vaporizers, or vape pens, that come equipped with variable wattage/variable voltage functionality. A relatively new feature, users of electronic cigarettes (vapers) are free to adjust the levels to their liking, producing warmer or denser vapor. One such product was used to collect the data in the study in question, with the experimenters adjusting the voltage from 3.3V to 5.0V, as reported in the article.

At 3.3V, the study reported that "[they] did not detect the formation of any formaldehyde-releasing agents." However, when the voltage level was raised to 5.0V, the study claims to have found levels of formaldehyde 15 times higher than tobacco cigarette smoke.

And the major faults of the study are contained in the small paragraph above. Formaldehyde in its gaseous form was not detected, but rather the formation of formaldehyde hemiacetals (a combination of formaldehyde and alcohols). As a prominent researcher in this field, Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos of the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Athens, Greece, pointed out, hemiacetals are not known to be either toxic or carcinogenic. But the authors of the study proceeded to equate the risk of formaldehyde with the hemiacetals found. This unwarranted extrapolation is at best misleading and at worst, fraudulent. 

Another misstep is the absence of any detailed description of what these voltage levels indicate or if they are at all regularly used. As it turns out, when adjusted to 5.0V, the sensation of vaping at this voltage is so unpleasant that regular users of e-cigarettes will never be exposed to the levels of formaldehyde hemiacetals detailed in the study. Overheating the atomizer produces such an unbearable taste that no vaper would continuously vape at such levels. Vaping at 5.0V is something that is simply not done in realistic use of e-cigs.

While it is true that formaldehyde hemiacetals were found at 5.0V, it cannot be said that the harm or risk is equal to gaseous formaldehyde nor can it be said that regular use exposes users to these levels because adjusting the volts to 5.0V is not at all done in regular use. It is important that research be conducted, but also understood. Clarity in presenting information is also a much needed quality in today's mass media. 

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