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Bad News: Your E-Cig Vapors Might Contain Lead

A new study found toxic levels of metals, including lead, in e-cigarette vapors

Lots of questions still linger about e-cigarettes, including just what you’re breathing in when you vape.

New study findings show that the vapors from a variety of devices contain potentially toxic levels of metals, including lead. The study comes on the heels of research out last year that detected metals in e-liquids used in the devices.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers recruited 56 daily e-cigarette users and studied the vapors they give off. “We devised a relatively simple system that collects the aerosol, what people call the vapors. We collected it almost as soon as it came out of the e-cigarette,” study author Ana María Rule, PhD, MHS, told Men’s Health.

A significant number of the devices emitted vapors with potentially unsafe levels of lead, chromium, manganese and/or nickel, says Rule, an assistant scientist in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“The EPA has national air quality standards. There’s a limit that the EPA has set based on health effects. Almost half of our samples exceeded that limit,” Rule says.

“This is the first paper that actually shows that the concentrations in the aerosol that people are inhaling are actually comparable to limits that are health-based limits,” she adds, noting that additional research involving the same 56 vapors found levels of nickel and chromium in people’s urine and saliva related to levels measured in the vapors — “confirming that the e-cigarette users were exposed to the metals.”

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that use a metal coil to heat up liquid nicotine and convert it into a mist, or vapor, that users inhale. There are about 600 different kinds you can buy online and as many as 8,000 different types of liquids available.

The Hopkins researchers also tested for the presence of metals in e-liquid refilling dispensers and in the remaining liquid in the e-cigarette tanks.

“Knowing many metals are toxic when inhaled, we wanted to check it out,” Rule says. “We didn’t know what we were going to find.”

The metals they discovered, when regularly inhaled, have been linked to lung, liver, immune, cardiovascular, and brain damage, and cancer.

How Are the Metals Getting Into the Vapor?

Some of the metals may enter the vapor through their contact with the metal coil, but that didn’t explain the presence of lead, because coils don’t contain lead. “There’s no reason for lead to be in there,” Rule says.

It’s possible that metals are in the flavors that are added to some liquids, or that contamination comes from the materials used in the containers that hold the liquids, she speculates, but more research needs to be conducted in this area.

The small study, published online in Environmental Health Perspectives, brings home a couple of important points, says Michael Burke, Ed.D., program supervisor of the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center.

“You don’t know what you’re inhaling. It varies based upon the liquid, the heating element, and what you may be inhaling in the vapor,” Burke told Men’s Health.

“What we really need,” he says, “is an [FDA] process by which the liquids, the heating elements, and the vapors are standardized and put through testing to show that they’re safe.”

Mary Brophy Marcus/Mens Health