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Carbonyl Compounds Generated from Electronic Cigarettes.

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are advertised as being safer than tobacco cigarettes products as the chemical compounds inhaled from e-cigarettes are believed to be fewer and less toxic than…

Shane Brooks’s insight:

Recent research by scientists associated with the Japanese Ministry of Health–and picked up by the World Health Organization–reports that certain carcinogenic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, are as explained in this misleading article “ten times more concentrated in e-cig vapor than in cigarette smoke“. Horrible, isn’t it? This is the death knell of the vape industry, that puts paid to the lie that vaping is less harmful than smoking–

Now wait a minute. The report never said that vaping is more harmful than smoking. They ran some tests, got some results, and said more research needed to be done due to the interest in vaping. That’s perfectly valid.

But what about that ‘ten times more concentrated’ in the news headlines? It’s dramatic, to be sure, but, like most headlines, it’s not the entire story. What happened was that the scientists took several models of vaporizers widely available on the Japanese market, hooked them up to some apparatus, and measured levels of carbonyl-group chemicals produced by what they considered to be an intense vaping regimen: ten puffs of two-second deep drags, with thirty seconds between puffs. Whether that’s representative or not isn’t really important; in the end they figured that the high temperature of the thermoresistor wire used to vaporize the e-juice caused some localized chemical changes and produced these chemicals.

It gets interesting deeper into the paper, though, particularly around the data table. They tested thirteen brands. Four brands produced no detectable carbonyl compounds. The e-juice appears to have been kept constant throughout (although the authors don’t specify, which suggests a haphazard attention to variable control) and the voltage was incrementally increased until they got results (and they don’t specify the voltages either, which reinforces the aforementioned haphazard attention to variable control). In any case, that four brands were absolutely negative suggests that manufacturing quality and perhaps engineering design are major factors in the production of these carbonyls.

The researchers said that their test methods lead to results falling into two categories, “extremely high” and “extremely low” (again, left undefined). They also defined a “failure rate” ratio based on the idea that extremely high was extremely bad and extremely low was at least passable. The greatest of these ‘failure rates’ was forty percent, meaning that vaporizers passed more often than they didn’t, but more on that later.

Looking at formaldehyde in particular since it’s what’s been hyped, the highest estimated concentration was 34 micrograms per ten puffs with an error band of plus-or-minus 35 micrograms at a single standard deviation. This result is less than useless. First, an error band two standard deviations wide–one above the estimate, the other below–is appropriate for a confidence level of about 68%. What this means is that the researchers are about 68% confident that the true value of their measurements lie somewhere in the range between 69 and -1 nanograms. Note the negative sign; this means that to this same confidence level, they cannot statistically tell the difference between what they measured and zero. Why the researchers used a one-sigma confidence interval rather than the more common two-sigma (95% confidence level) confidence interval is unknown, but it already suggests low-quality data.

Moving along, the second was 22 micrograms plus-or-minus 15.4 micrograms. This is per ten puffs, so that means one puff contained 2.2 nanograms of formaldehyde. They said a puff was 55 milliliters of air. This is 400 micrograms per liter, or .4 parts per million. OSHA has set the

eight-hour-workday limit on formaldehyde exposure to 0.75 parts per million (Part Number 1910.1048(c)(2)).

Since the ideal state of “safe” doesn’t exist, there is only “safe enough.” What is “safe enough” depends entirely on baselines, and reporting on the safety of anything is extremely sensitive to what baseline is used to report it. Everything you will ever do can be made to sound horribly unsafe if compared to plane crashes or asteroid strikes, and the headline here is an egregious example. Cigarettes are bad because they contain formaldehyde, e-cigs generate more formaldehyde than cigarettes, so e-cigs are worse–except that the health risk of cigarettes does not come primarily from formaldehyde. It comes from all the chemicals and particulates generated by combustion. A well-blackened steak probably has more carbon in it than a cigarette, but that doesn’t mean it will harm your health (at least, not in the same way).

Getting back to the “failure rate,” the vaporizer brand that “failed” most often (40%) only produced 17 micrograms of formaldehyde. The one that meaningfully produced the most formaldehyde “failed” 27% of the time. These “failure rates,” again, are based on data distributions, not actually exceeding levels known to be harmful.

Taking the meaningful worst-case numbers from the researchers’ data tables and comparing them with Federal risk guidelines produces the bottom table:

Table 1: Comparisons of Worst-Case Experimental Results and Risk Limits

Carbonyl           Worst-case         Worst-case       Work-Day Limit

                             (μg/10 puffs)       (ppm)                 OSHA (ppm)


Formaldehyde   22                         0.40                      0.75

Acetaldehyde    15                          0.27                      200

Acrolein              20                          0.36                      0.1

Propanal             15                          0.27                      20                                  

Glyoxal                16                          0.29                      0.04

Methylglyoxal    12.1                       0.220                  None Listed

Out of these, acrolein
 and glyoxal are out of range and thus probably hazardous over a long time, keeping in mind that these are absolute worst-case numbers and most readings were actually much lower than these (and well within acceptable limits). These numbers represent the rattiest of ratty e-cigs you can pick up out of a gutter, and they’re being compared to limits that assume that you’re using them non-stop for eight hours a day. Short-term exposure limits are much more generous.

Doing the same with the best possible e-cig numbers from the study, however:

Table 2: Comparisons of Best-Case Experimental Results and Risk Limits

Carbonyl           Worst-case         Worst-case       Work-Day Limit

                             (μg/10 puffs)       (ppm)                 OSHA (ppm)


Formaldehyde   0.0                       0.0                      0.75

Acetaldehyde    0.0                        0.0                     200

Acrolein              0.0                        0.0                      0.1

Propanal             0.0                        0.0                      20                                  

Glyoxal                0.0                        0.0                      0.04

Methylglyoxal    0.0                     0.0                    None Listed


Just for fun, let’s take the worst-case numbers but weight them by their “failure rate” to get an approximately realistic ‘statistical population’ view of the risk.

Table 3: Comparisons of FR-Weighted Worst-Case Experimental Results and Risk Limits

Carbonyl           Worst-case         Worst-case       Work-Day Limit

                             (μg/10 puffs)       (ppm)                 OSHA (ppm)


Formaldehyde   5.9                   0.11                     0.75

Acetaldehyde    6.0                    0.11                    200

Acrolein              4.8                     0.09                    0.1

Propanal             6.0                    0.11                     20                                  

Glyoxal                3.2                     0.06                    0.04

Methylglyoxal   3.27                  0.06                   None Listed

Look at that: mostly safe. Good thing glyoxal isn’t considered a carcinogen (yet).

That’s the problem with numbers. They can be spun, and not necessarily intentionally. People with agendas can, consciously or not, compare numbers in ways that reinforce the narrative they want to tell. For those who see vaping as the next great moral panic and social vice or a public health catastrophe, they have every reason to take the worst-of-worst-case numbers and compare them to other things that make them sound hopelessly bad in order to tell a story: “these things are dangerous.” For people in the business, they have every reason to spin the other way: “these things are safe.”

Meanwhile, we think you’re capable of figuring things out for yourself and so we’ve got no interest in blowing vapor up your ass. “Safe” and “dangerous” are, to be honest, statements of a personal stomach for risk. Risk is calculated using statistics and the data are found using science. Get scientifically literate and look at the research yourself. Ask your science-nerd friends questions about what research papers say. Look for weasel words and special pleading in news reports, and pay careful attention to how scientists qualify their statements. Define safe for yourself, and make your life choices based on that.

Do we think vaping is safe? The honest answer is “it’s safe enough for us.” So far, all research indicates it’s a hell of a lot safer than smoking, even if a few chemicals are in excess of those found in tobacco smoke. Of course, we’ve got a vested interest in the matter,  we don’t want to blow vapor up your ass–so educate yourself and reach your own conclusions.

Secret Agent: Timperator of Man
Clandestine Vapes 

Carbonyl Compounds Generated from Electronic Cigarettes.
Source: Electronic Cigarette News

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