As both a vaper and a scientist, let’s consider what is really going on with vaping. While the discussion supports both use and caution, it should be evaluated with wisdom, common sense, and intelligent risk assessment.
First, vaping is a useful tool for those desiring help with smoking cessation. Products with relatively low nicotine content can make it easier to quit smoking, but the largest benefit comes when vaping completely replaces cigarette use.
The sooner you stop smoking, the better your chances of a full recovery and significantly decreased the risk of cardiovascular or pulmonary disease. It also comes with an immediate drop in cancer risk, and approaching that of a “never-smoked” in just a few years.
Second, a report from Johns Hopkins tells us quite clearly that vaping is less harmful than tobacco smoking—of that there is no question. There are thousands of individually toxic substances (~7,000) in ordinary cigarettes, such as cyanide, acetone, metals, and innumerable well-known carcinogens.
Technology & Biology
VG & PG
Conversely, vape-fluid, or e-liquid, is an artificial construct, usually made from four ingredients. Some have nicotine, but there are many varieties which do not contain this highly addictive substance. The other ingredients are food grade flavourings and either Vegetable Glycerine (VG) and/or Propylene Glycol (PG).
These latter two products already have regulatory approval, are used as sweeteners in everyday foods you already buy, and are harmless to human beings according to current knowledge. When heated, they volatise into vapour, which acts as a medium to carry other products into the mouth or lungs.
The small portion of VG and PG that is not completely exhaled readily decomposes into easily absorbed sugars in our lungs. Our bloodstream happily takes on the free “fuel” with no harm.
The chemistry behind some of the flavourings causes some concern for people. We know these are food-grade products that are perfectly safe to eat, but what happens when they are nebulised? As vapour, does their chemistry change significantly and pose a threat?
So far we’ve found no problems from food grade products, but it is certainly worthwhile to pursue this with long term studies. The anti-vaping lobby actively seeks studies that support their view that vaping is hazardous—and in some cases, they’re not wrong.
While the declared additives stand up to scrutiny, there have been several cases of contamination with metals like aluminium, copper, nickel, and tin, as well as bacteria, and fungal toxins. People have been sickened, especially when using homemade vape fluids. Those made in vape shops, in unsanitary conditions, also pose a serious hazard.
These backroom chemists want to mix and blend to make unique products, but that simply can’t be done without a clean laboratory. The kitchen counter in the back of the shop, next to the unwashed dishes, is no place for this sort of activity. They are endangering their customers’ health through sheer ignorance.
In other instances, some overseas manufacturers produce vape-fluids with diacetyl in them. Diacetyl is the substance that gives butter its flavour. There were a couple of famous cases of factory workers making microwave popcorn products who acquired severe bronchiolitis obliterans, which came to be known as popcorn lung in the popular press. This was caused by high levels of diacetyl exposure.
Diacetyl is safe as a food additive; however, inhaling its concentrated vapour is hazardous. What constitutes concentrated? Regular cigarette smoke has nearly 340 micrograms of diacetyl and doesn’t cause popcorn lung. E-Cig vapour produces only about 9 micrograms which, while still worthy of investigation, is 38 times less, and is not likely to have significant consequences.
The media-triggered panic subsequent to the release of the 2015 Harvard Study (that simply noted it was worthy of further investigation) caused most manufacturers to cease using diacetyl altogether. We responded here in the U.K. by banning the substance. Properly manufactured vape fluid you buy from legitimate lab-tested U.K. manufacturers is diacetyl-free.
This is a legitimate concern, since formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, but no one adds it as an ingredient. It is a very simple molecule with a carbon atom attached to a water molecule, or CH2O. All the needed parts can be found in vegetable glycerine, which is C3H8O3 or Propylene Glycol, which is C3H8O2.
Unfortunately, people looking for “Big Smoke”—huge dense clouds of vapour—are using devices which are capable of reaching 200º Celsius. Normally, vape devices top out around 70º C, but when you reach these extraordinary temperatures, twice that of boiling water, formaldehyde begins to evolve from the violent breakdown of the carriers, VG and PG.
Sub-ohm, high temperature devices should be avoided to minimise your risk of creating toxic carcinogenic byproducts. Most people readily concede that impressive amounts of vapour are an awfully poor reason to get cancer.
Last but not least, Nicotine
Nicotine is highly addictive; some say more than cocaine, amphetamines, or heroin. It is the reason that people keep smoking. However, nicotine is just a mild stimulant, and poses virtually no risk in healthy people when used in this manner. It does not cause cancer—that is triggered by the combustion products of tobacco (the tars).
A murine (rat) study exposed subjects to various concentrations of vapourised nicotine, VG, and PG for 60 minutes per day for three months, and observed no toxicity. These E-cig ingredients are deemed “safe”.
That said, babies and youth have been hospitalised from sucking on cigarette butts. It only takes 0.5-1.0 grams of nicotine to be a fatal dose, especially in small bodies. Therefore it is vitally important that if you use a product with nicotine in it that it is kept in:
a) childproof containers;
b) completely out of reach; and
c) that it is labelled with the Poison Symbol and children are educated to recognize its meaning.
Vaping for Health
Future Medical Uses
We are now reaching the point the where new E-medicines are on the horizon. Vaping could be an ideal way to deliver highly customised treatments for diseases instead of (for example) chemotherapy sessions disrupting activities and lasting for hours.
The lungs are the gateway to our blood circulatory system, so as biotechnology and nanotechnology advances, we’ll be able to target misbehaving cells, while completely ignoring cells that express themselves in a healthy manner. Excessive serum cholesterol in our blood could be efficiently metabolised into useful substances or into by-products that can be easily filtered and removed by the liver or kidneys.
Recreational Use and Abuse
Vaping without nicotine is an amusing recreational activity, minus the addiction. It can help you focus on an activity, or relax when you’re stressed. What person on a diet wouldn’t like the taste of chocolate cake or cupcakes once-in-a-while without any consequences?
The two classes of cannabinoid, the endocannabinoids, made by our bodies, and the phytocannabinoids, made by plants, perform nearly identical functions. There are in excess of 130 different varieties derived from the cannabis plant alone that we are learning about. The vaping technique makes for a fast-acting delivery system if something essential is in short supply.
Cannabinoids are essential to humans to control appetite, pain management, and many immune functions (e.g.: the inflammatory response, generally the first line of defence against invasive bacteria or viruses).
Indeed, they are responsible for mood, memory forming and recall ability, fertility, pregnancy, natal development, pain, all the way down to the “runner’s high” that accompanies intense exercise. They are as much a part of us as blood and hormones.
One of the worst things about marijuana-use is the stench and imposition on the people around you. It gets in your clothes and hair; it seeps into furniture and rugs; and soon, inured to it yourself, you stink, and you don’t even know it.
Someone who has a scotch, or a gin & tonic, doesn’t have to pay that price. Vaping levels the playing field for legal, responsible, recreational users. You don’t have to reek and advertise your activity. You might actually please people by being momentarily wreathed in the scent of strawberries…
As with any young, new, exciting technology, there will be hitches. We’ve experienced a few with enthusiasts making mistakes with contaminants. Some manufacturers have added supposedly “healthy” items, like vitamin “E” oil, or other “innocuous” substances that turned out to have significant consequences.
Calling e-liquids of vape-fluids “oils”, or worse, “vape-oil” has caused no end of troubles. Inexperienced experimenters think they really are oils because of the viscosity. It has ruined many a vape device, or at worst necessitated a thorough, inconvenient, and totally unnecessary disassembly and cleaning.
All of these things should teach us that we need to stick with real laboratories that understand chemistry. Let’s rely on scientists with practical experience rather than the local grower with “a cool idea” like adding jojoba oil or hemp oil that could have serious medical consequences, but most certainly will damage your vaping equipment.
Be selfish and protect your health, and your investment in gear. Don’t use e-liquids, vape-juice, or anything not lab-certified. And if you aren’t addicted to nicotine now, stick with non-nicotine products. Why create an addiction unnecessarily when you’re simply curious? Be safe and be smart!