E-cigarettes may contain up to 10 times as many cancer-causing toxic chemicals as traditional tobacco cigarettes according to Japanese researchers. A shocking finding given the devices are marketed as harmless smoking cessation aids.
The study, commissioned by Japan's health ministry found potent carcinogens including formaldehyde and acetaldehyde in the vapour inhaled by users of some types of e-cigarettes.
The electronic devices work by heating flavoured liquid which users purchase as refills. The liquid often contains nicotine and when heated turns into a vapour that is inhaled, much like traditional cigarettes but without the smoke from the burning of tobacco.
Speaking to French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP), a spokesman for the health ministry said formaldehyde was present at much higher levels than carcinogens found in the smoke from regular cigarettes. Scientist Naoki Kunugita added that "In one brand of e-cigarette the team found more than 10 times the level of carcinogens contained in one regular cigarette,"
Kunugita explained that the amount of formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and other toxins generated by the devices varied during use, saying "when the wire (which vaporises the liquid) gets overheated, higher amounts of those harmful substances seemed to be produced."
Formaldehyde is found in embalming fluids and building materials while its chemical cousin acetaldehyde, also found at significantly high levels in e-cigarette vapour by the researchers, is produced in industrial plants to make acids and other chemicals used by industry to make a wide variety of products. Acetaldehyde is also the chemical that is produced when our bodies breakdown alcoholic beverages (ethanol) and is responsible for many of the effects of a hangover.
Both formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are known to be carcinogenic and potent neurotoxins.
Nicotine e-cigarettes, or so-called Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), are becoming increasingly popular as they are seen as a healthier alternative to tobacco cigarettes. Alarmingly, it is young people who are most attracted to the devices. A study of 1,601 pupils aged just 10 and 11 in Wales found 6% had tried e-cigarettes, three times as many as had tried smoking regular cigarettes.
Kunugita said the research showed e-cigarettes are not the harmless products many people assume them to be - "We need to be aware that some makers are selling such products for dual use (with tobacco) or as a gateway for young people to start a smoking habit", he cautioned.
The Japanese health ministry official added "You call them e-cigarettes, but they are products totally different from regular tobacco." Following the results of the study the Japanese government is now looking into the possible risks associated with the products and considering how they should be regulated.
In August, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called on governments worldwide to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, warning they pose a "serious threat" to unborn babies and young people.
Despite a current scarcity of research into their effects, the WHO said there was enough evidence "to caution children and adolescents, pregnant women, and women of reproductive age" about e-cigarette use, due to the "potential for foetal and adolescent nicotine exposure (having) long-term consequences for brain development".
The UN health body also said they should be banned from indoor public spaces, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also expressed concern at the number of young Americans who were not previously smokers but are now using e-cigarettes.