It’s been a rough year for the vaping industry. What began as a purportedly less harmful replacement for combustible cigarettes has become the focus of investigations into everything from lung disorders to fatalities. And now a new study has found concentrations of dangerous heavy metals like lead and copper in vapors produced by some types of tank-style e-cigarettes.
Tank-style e-cigs, as opposed to the thinner (aka “cig-a-like”) and disposable styles, generate aerosol vapors using large capacity vape-fluid tanks and powerful batteries. They started becoming popular around 2003—featured in smoke shops and online stores as the higher-end of the vape market—and pitched as allowing users to customize their equipment with variable power and capacity.
But according to the latest study, all that vaping power may produce an unhealthy byproduct aside from the possible unhealthiness already suspected of some e-cigs – a medley of heavy metals with links to cancer, lung disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and other maladies.
Researchers examined six popular tank-style electronic cigarettes and screened their aerosols for 19 metals. They found the aerosols from all of the e-cigs contained some of the metals, which appeared to originate in the atomizing units.
Eleven metals in particular were linked to components of the e-cigs: aluminum, calcium, chromium, copper, iron, lead, magnesium, nickel, silicon, tin, and zinc. The more metal parts in the e-cigarette, the more heavy metals were found in the vapors it produced. Power was clearly a critical factor in the appearance of some of the metals. The researchers note in the study: “Concentrations of some elements (e.g., lead) increased in aerosols as voltage/power increased.”
“These tank-style e-cigarettes operate at higher voltage and power, resulting in higher concentrations of metals, such as lead, nickel, iron, and copper, in their aerosols,” said study author Monique Williams, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of California-Riverside Department of Molecular, Cell, and Systems Biology. “Most of the metals in e-cigarette aerosols likely come from the nichrome wire, tin solder joints, brass clamps, insulating sheaths, and wicks – components of the atomizer unit.”
Some of the metals found in this study have notorious rap sheets. Chromium, lead, and nickel are known carcinogens. Prolonged exposure to lead can also trigger cardiovascular problems, and it’s a potential catalyst of brain disorders affecting memory, processing speed and learning ability.
Chromium is linked to gastrointestinal symptoms, respiratory distress and lung cancer. Nickel is also linked to lung disorders along with nasal cavity damage, among other nastiness.
“When batteries with more power are used in these tank-style e-cigarettes, their atomizing units can heat to temperatures greater than 300 C, which could produce harmful byproducts,” said Prue Talbot, a UC-Riverside professor of cell biology, who led the research team. “The presence of heavy metals, including some known carcinogens, in e-cigarette aerosols is concerning because with prolonged exposure they could cause adverse health effects.”
Assessing those possible health effects is a role for other studies to tackle; this one was focused only on screening metals in some types of e-cigarette aerosols. The amount of any given metal an e-cig user might be exposed to, and potential outcomes from that exposure, fall outside the parameters of this research.
The results do, however, provide another data point for regulators, health providers and consumers to consider as the vaping drama continues to unfold.