“Are e-cigs safe?”
Let us begin by saying we hate the use of the term e-cig as it isn’t accurate and automatically comes with the unfortunate negative stigma of being a type of cigarette. We like to think of them as PVD’s or personal vape devices. For the sake of understanding, we will use the word e-cig since it’s what everybody either knows or thinks of–for now.
‘Safe’ is a loaded word in our society. We’re taught conflicting ideas from an early age; one such conflict is that there are such binary states as ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ and yet we should always look both ways before crossing any street, no matter how empty or unused. The simple reality is that there is no such thing as ‘safe’ but instead only varying degrees of risk: there is an extremely small yet non-zero risk that you will be struck dead by a meteorite from deep space. Therefore, the key becomes having enough information that any risks you take are informed ones; for example, the risk of death-by-random-meteorite is so small (1:750,000,000) that it should not preclude you from going about your daily routine.
Conventional cigarettes consist of hundreds of chemical ingredients which become thousands of compounds when combusted, so their risk can only be truly known via thorough scientific study due to the high likelihood of compounding factors. E-cigarettes—or particularly the ‘juice’ that fills them—have only a few ingredients and do not actually induce any chemical reactions in them (unlike burning) and so a realistic prediction of their risk is similarly simpler: take each ingredient in turn and look at its health effects.
Since the reaction of various ingredients is dependent upon context, we should consider the e-cigarette mechanism itself. An e-cigarette is technically a vaporizer and, in essence, is no more than a battery hooked up to a heating element which heats up to between 300 and 450 degrees F. This is enough to vaporize—i.e. boil—the fluid in them but not enough to set the fluid alight. The ingredients in the juice change their state but chemically, for the most part, remain the same. Vaporizers as a technology are a known quantity to the point where they are used by chefs to flavor dishes.
To reiterate: vaporizers work by simply turning juice ingredients into a mist rather than actively burning them (and thus causing them to react chemically with the air and each other) like conventional cigarettes do. It’s this context which allows us to look at the risks of the ingredients individually.
The main constituent of any e-cig juice is propylene glycol, a simple compound derived from mineral oil that is commonly used in cosmetics to increase penetration of the skin, medical vaporizers as a medium for carrying medicine (the use from which e-cigs are derived), and pills to act as a solvent for medications that are not water-soluble. You may also recognize the name from automotive antifreeze, which is a much more concentrated version. In the low concentrations used in e-cigs (and cosmetics and medicines and whatnot), propylene glycol is classified as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In terms of risks, studies have shown that some people can have allergic reactions to it but otherwise there is no indication of acute or chronic poisoning at low doses, nor is it known to be carcinogenic.
You wouldn’t want to drink it by the gallon in a contest, but otherwise, it’s a very low-risk ingredient.
The propylene glycol is usually mixed with vegetable glycerin, also known as glycerol. It’s a very common food additive found in low-fat foods, frosting, certain liqueurs, and whatnot. It’s also used as a lubricant in laboratory settings. Even industrial strength glycerol is benign stuff; a 180-lb man would have to eat over two pounds of it to get a lethal dose; the usual dosage is on the order of single milligrams. In concentrated form it can irritate some people’s skin, but there is no clinical evidence of it being chronically toxic or carcinogenic; as such, it’s another GRAS ingredient according to the FDA. The human body can metabolize it for energy.
Glycerol is so low-risk that you could literally slather it all over yourself and then play slip-‘n-slide across linoleum floors to your heart’s content with no fear of catching anything from it… unless you happen to have skin sensitive to it, at which point doing so may be mildly uncomfortable until you wash it off.
E-cig juice flavors come from, well, those ‘natural and artificial flavors.’ Clandestine Vapes™ sources its flavors from a supplier that uses all-natural concentrates with no added preservatives or sweeteners. While chemically complex, these flavorings retain the chemical composition of their source fruit, nuts, herbs, and whatnot. Therefore, they’re no more risky, once diluted in an e-juice, than their original sources. After going through a vaporizer, they’re probably less risky than cooked versions of their sources due to less likelihood of chemical reactions causing burnt (and therefore usually carcinogenic) areas.
Since you eat food, the flavoring used in Clandestine Vapes™ juices or most juices today, are probably not an appreciable increase in risk to your everyday lifestyle.
Finally, the optional ingredient: nicotine. This is an honest-to-goodness drug, albeit one classified as Over-The-Counter by the FDA. It is obtained (mostly) from tobacco plants, which use it as a natural insecticide. In the human body, it has several effects. At low doses, it causes glucose, adrenaline, and dopamine release, acting as a psycho-stimulant. At higher doses, it suppresses nerve function and causes serotonin release, acting as a mild sedative and pain-killing narcotic. This variable effect (called “Nesbitt’s Paradox”) makes nicotine unique when compared to alcohol or caffeine. It is known to be addictive, and is the most toxic ingredient on the list: spilling a large amount of pure nicotine on one’s skin can be lethal. It has been found to be carcinogenic in rats and, at least when part of smoking, can increase the risk of birth defects. To be fair, the diseases most commonly popularly associated with nicotine—emphysema and cancers of the mouth, throat, and lungs—are more scientifically associated with smoking, due to chemical reactions within smoke and the physical damage of inhaling burning smoke particulates.