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What’s Really in That Vape?

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer Michael F. Sabitoni

The e-cigarette was originally developed in 2003 as an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes and has gained popularity since. In 2022, nearly five percent of Americans over age 12 – about 13.2 million people – reported vaping in the past month. More than 30 percent of those users have never actually smoked cigarettes; they picked up vaping independently.

Vaping is touted as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, and with cartridges that taste like candy and fruit, it’s easy to assume they’re relatively harmless. However, thousands of users have been hospitalized for vape-related illnesses and suffered lung damage from using them. Considering how widespread vaping is, it’s important to know what exactly you’re exposing yourself to and the potential health risks.

“While vaping is often portrayed as a safer alternative to smoking, a growing body of evidence tells us it’s not good for your health,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Trustee Michael F. Sabitoni. “Introducing harmful chemicals to your lungs – through either traditional cigarettes or vaping devices – can have serious health consequences.”

What’s in Your Vaping Liquid?

There are a variety of companies that produce vapes, and different brands have different ingredients. However, all of the following substances have been found in vaping liquid:

  • Propylene glycol. Propylene glycol is a solvent used to dissolve nicotine so it can be inhaled. It’s a common food additive and while safe to ingest, breathing in aerosolized propylene glycol may worsen
  • Vegetable glycerin. Vegetable glycerin is another common solvent used in vaping liquid. It’s derived from vegetable oils and while it’s regarded as safe to eat or apply topically, vaping glycerin may lead to respiratory irritation.
  • Vitamin E acetate. This is a synthetic form of vitamin E that’s used as a diluting agent, specifically in THC-containing vape products. Vitamin E is found in many foods and cosmetics products, but can interfere with lung function when inhaled. Vitamin E acetate is the primary chemical linked to e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI).
  • Diacetyl. This is a compound widely used in food to impart a buttery flavor. Inhaling this substance has been linked to a rare, irreversible lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans (or “popcorn lung”) that impairs lung function and worsens over time.
  • Nicotine. Nicotine is the highly addictive drug found in tobacco products, including most vapes. It’s especially dangerous to the developing brains of children and teens, but has negative health effects for all users. Nicotine can increase blood pressure and heart rate, cause arteries to narrow and increase the risk of heart attack.
  • Sucralose. Sucralose is an artificial sweetener used to make vape liquid taste better. In food, sucralose has generally been considered safe (although that’s being challenged by recent reports). However, sucralose can break down and form potentially toxic compounds when heated to temperatures found in vaping devices.

What’s in That “Vape Cloud”?

Unfortunately, the damage isn’t done once the vapor is inhaled. Contrary to what some may believe, vape smoke isn’t harmless water vapor. When certain ingredients or components of an e-cigarette are heated, several potentially harmful compounds form that can affect both the user and bystanders via secondhand smoke. These include:

  • Benzene. Benzene is an organic compound that’s also a known carcinogen. Studies have shown certain e-cigarettes can emit benzene vapors – at levels thousands of times higher than in ambient air – when operated at high power.
  • Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is classified as a carcinogen, but cancer risk is thought to be dependent on how much a person is exposed to and for how long. Increasing exposure to formaldehyde isn’t advised, and inhaling formaldehyde has been linked to asthma.
  • Acrolein. Acrolein is a highly toxic substance that’s primarily used as a herbicide. It’s released during the combustion of nicotine products and is known to cause irritation to skin and the respiratory tract.
  • Heavy metals. Vapes work by heating e-liquid with metal coils, which can be made of a mix of metals like iron, chromium, nickel, lead and aluminum. Studies show dangerous levels of these metals can leach into the vapor. Several of these metals are toxic – and sometimes carcinogenic – when inhaled.

While vaping is often marketed as a safer alternative to smoking, there are potential health risks associated with inhaling the chemicals found in e-cigarettes. Long-term research on the safety of vaping is still needed, and it’s essential to weigh the potential benefits against the known and potential risks. It’s not recommended that those who don’t currently smoke start vaping, however if you’re considering vaping to quit cigarettes or have concerns about your current usage, consult with a doctor to see what’s right for you.

Tobacco Cessation Resources

The LHSFNA recommends that people who aren’t currently using tobacco products don’t start, and that people who are using them work towards quitting. The Fund offers a variety of tobacco-related resources. For smoking cessation resources, including Quit Tobacco Kits, contact the Fund’s Health Promotion Division.

Some additional resources include:

  • Call 1-800-QUITNOW. This toll-free quitline allows you to speak confidentially with a trained quit coach, free of charge. They provide many of the resources and services you’d receive in a stop-smoking class or from your doctor.
  • Pan-Canadian Quitline. Canadian residents can call 1-866-366-3667 to receive similar free coaching and counseling services to quit smoking

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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