Some people try to scare smokers away from switching to e-cigarettes because they say there are chemicals in vapes. We look at whether there are chemicals in e-liquid, what risk they pose and whether you should pay attention to alarmist newspaper headlines.
The Daily Mail recently covered the news of Australian researchers publishing a study that claims to have found chemicals in the vapour that pose a “potential” risk to health. This isn’t the first time someone has made such a claim.
What are “chemicals”?
Everyone who didn’t fall asleep during science in school will remember the word – frequently used in combination with phrases like “Don’t eat this chemical”, “Don’t get this chemical on your hand”, or “Bobby, stop pouring that chemical into Jessica’s bottle of water!”
Chemicals are forms of matter – the ‘stuff’ that is all around us. Chemical substances exist as gases, liquids, solids, or plasma. When pure chemical substances join with others they become something called a chemical compound.
Are chemicals dangerous?
Some are, some aren’t, and some are essential to life.
Would you be scared to eat something containing this list of chemicals?
- Calcium – associated with kidney stones
- Magnesium – linked to kidney problems, cardiac arrest, and possibly death
- Sulphur – very dangerous
- Phosphorus – can cause the skin to melt
- Chlorine – a poison gas
- Sodium – will burn the eyes and skin
- Potassium – will burn the eyes and skin
- Iron – hammers hurt if you hit your finger
- Zink – can cause stomach cramps, vomiting, and anaemia
- Lead – causes a bad case of death
- Cadmium – highly toxic and known to cause cancer
- Polyphenols – may lead to kidney damage and tumours
- Amygdalin – turns to hydrocyanic acid in the body
Would you need a death wish to eat whatever contains those? Maybe not. Those chemicals are all found in a slice of apple.
Why does an apple not kill you?
The impressively named Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was more conveniently known as Paracelsus. The 16th Century scientist is the father of modern toxicology and came up with the idea that it is the amount of something that makes it poisonous – not just its presence: “The dose makes the poison”.
Could it be the dose?
Apple seeds contain a chemical compound called amygdalin, something made up of cyanide and sugar. Eating a few seeds will have no impact on you, whereas eating a lot over a period of time will kill you.
What about this research paper?
Colin Mendelsohn, an Australian tobacco harm reduction expert, wrote to the authors of the paper telling them “Simply detecting the presence of a chemical with a potential risk has little meaning. The risk to human health depends on the level of exposure.”
He continued: “Most of the chemicals in the e-liquids were at low or very low levels. Low doses of chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment, including arsenic in tap water and acrylamide in coffee. These cause little harm. Everything has chemicals!”
Most importantly, chemicals found in both e-cig vapour and tobacco smoke have to be assessed in their relative quantities – and the levels detected in vapour are “orders of magnitude less than that found in tobacco smoke,” according to Public Health England.
Or, as Colin says: “A Public Health England review found that most toxins responsible for health damage from smoking are absent in vapour and those that are present are at much lower levels (below 5% and mostly below 1%) than in tobacco smoke.”
Vaping is not safe, but it is “at least 95% safer” than smoking.