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Toxic Levels of Formaldehyde in E-Cigarettes? Think Again…

by · December 10, 2014

toxic-formaldehyde-e-cigarettesA study out of Japan last week caused a media feeding frenzy over the claim that electronic cigarettes contain “ten times more carcinogens than traditional cigarettes.” Not only is this headline completely false and misleading, but the study hasn’t even been published yet and full disclosures about the findings are not available. The irony is that you never hear reports about FDA approved stop-smoking drugs that have been proven to kill. Call me doubtful, or even paranoid, but an agency that is truly working to protect consumers would have their sights set on real dangers like Chantix (or other drugs) that are responsible for hundreds of confirmed deaths, serious mental problems, mood swings and elevated blood pressure.

The research, commissioned by Japan’s Health Ministry, analyzed unnamed brands of e-cigarettes to determine their chemical content, looking for an unspecified number of carcinogens. They ended up highlighting just one – formaldehyde, leaving out many of the most important details.

Some have suggested that it may be due to the fact that it was the only discernible compound found during the test that could be considered dangerous. To top it off, the Japanese scientists only discovered higher levels of formaldehyde in one of the ‘several’ (their term) products studied. They admitted that the amount of formaldehyde detected varied throughout the course of the analysis.

Media Pounces, Despite Lack of Evidence

Many misleading headlines about the study claim that the rate of cancer risk for vapers is ’10 times higher’ than smokers, but that is not stated anywhere in the study. In other words, much of the so-called facts are simply made up. There’s no defense for the poor reporting on the issue and since the fabrication has already gone viral, here are several important points to consider.

  • No Brand Disclosure – How can a report denigrating a product that millions of consumers use not provide the manufacturers of the products?
  • Unknown Origin – E-liquid from countries such as China and Taiwan, that provide limited oversight on manufacturing, could have skewed the results.
  • Outdated Technology – The study used first generation e-cigarettes that are quickly becoming outdated. Most vapers have moved well beyond these products to 2nd and 3rd generation devices.
  • Elevated Levels in JUST ONE Sample – As mentioned, only 1 out of the 10 samples showed formaldehyde levels above that of traditional cigarettes.
  • Unpublished Findings – Full disclosure of the study results have not been made available yet, leaving many unanswered questions and no clear conclusions about the findings. Yet it was heavily covered by the media!
  • Most Studies Contradict Results Dozens of previous studies have shown that e-cig vapor is substantially less toxic than traditional cigarettes.

The E-Cigarette Advocates Research Group issued a statement regarding the study.

Interestingly, while all news-media discuss about carcinogens (plural), the text mentions only formaldehyde. To tell the whole truth this ‘substance found in building materials and embalming fluids is in reality present everywhere in the environment, in every house, in every city, town, and village, urban or rural area. So, all the noise in the news media is about one carcinogen, not some carcinogens. Moreover, the title is nothing but misleading since they found the formaldehyde at ’10 levels higher than cigarettes’ in 1 of the 10 products tested, not in every case.

According Greek cardiologist and e-cig researcher Konstantinos Farsalinos, the high levels of formaldehyde discovered by Japanese researchers was a single extreme case out of the many products that were tested. The high reading could have been caused by a variety of different issues.

Obviously, we have to realize that focusing the discussion on one of the tens of carcinogens present in tobacco cigarette smoke is misleading, Farsalinos said. Even if e-cigarettes contained similar, or higher, levels of formaldehyde, they do not contain the majority of other toxic and carcinogenic substances present in cigarette smoke. Overall, any residual risk from electronic cigarette use is magnitudes lower than smoking.

The knee jerk reactions of the media to misrepresent the dangers of e-cigs is disturbing. The fact remains that until the entire study is published, the public should not be exposed to such sloppy analysis and reporting. Without those details there is no way to know whether the results were skewed by cheap products, a malfunctioning device or a myriad of other problems that could have caused increased levels of formaldehyde in the test results. Even if the formaldehyde levels found in the worst-case scenario were experienced by vapers everyday, this is just one carcinogen out of over 60 in tobacco smoke; meaning the risk associated with e-cigarettes is still unquestionably lower.

2 Responses

  1. max hodges says:

    There has been more than a single study (Miyake, Shibamoto). See references in this article from New England Journal of Medicine
    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1413069

    Balashov AL, Danov SM, Krasnov VL, Chernov AY, Ryabova TAAssociation of formaldehyde in aqueous-alcoholic systems. Russ J Gen Chem 2002;72:744-747

    Miyake T, Shibamoto TQuantitative analysis by gas chromatography of volatile carbonyl compounds in cigarette smoke. J Chromatogr A 1995;693:376-381

    Counts ME, Morton MJ, Laffoon SW, Cox RH, Lipowicz PJSmoke composition and predicting relationships for international commercial cigarettes smoked with three machine-smoking conditions. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol 2005;41:185-227

    Kosmider L, Sobczak A, Fik M, et al. Carbonyl compounds in electronic cigarette vapors: effects of nicotine solvent and battery output voltage. Nicotine Tob Res2014;16:1319-1326

    de Groot A, Geier J, Flyvholm M-A, Lensen G, Coenraads P-JFormaldehyde-releasers: relationship to formaldehyde contact allergy — part 2: metalworking fluids and remainder. Contact Dermatitis 2010;63:129-139

  2. This was published after our article was written, but it’s a perfect example of more FLAWED research. See this rebuttal from Dr. Farsalinos, cardiologist at Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center and a leading expert on the subject:

    http://ecigarette-research.com/web/index.php/2013-04-07-09-50-07/2015/191-form-nejm

    “It seems that both the researchers and the reviewers who approved the study for publication missed that energy should be expressed in watts. As a result, we do not know how many watts were applied to the atomizer. However, there is a way to approximate this, through the information provided about liquid consumption per puff. The authors report that 5mg of liquid were consumed at 3.3 volts. Based on measurements I have performed, such consumption is observed at about 6-7 watts at 4-second puffs. Thus, the atomizer resistance is probably 1.6-1.8 Ohms. This means that at 5 volts the energy was around 14-16watts. That would be an extremely high value for most commercially-available atomizers (excluding some rebuildables which can withstand such high wattage levels). Thus, it is more than obvious that once again the atomizer was overheated, which of course will result in very high levels of formaldehyde production. What the authors ignore is that these conditions, commonly called dry-puff phenomenon (which is explained in detail in one of my published studies), are easily detected by the vapers. In fact, overheating results in an unpleasant taste that none can withstand. As a result, no vaper is ever using the e-cigarette at such conditions and, thus, will never be exposed to such levels of formaldehyde. The story published in New England Journal of Medicine is similar to finding carcinogens in an overcooked piece of meat that none can ever eat. Of course the findings are true, but none will be exposed to the levels found.”

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