Are electronic cigarettes safe? Doctors say there are too many unknowns to be sure, and a new study reinforces their concerns.
Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine finds that when an electronic cigarette is operated at a high voltage, it produces formaldehyde in concentrations much higher than regular cigarettes create. The analysis didn't find that formaldehyde is released when using the device set at a low voltage.
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that can increase the risk of leukemia, lymphomas, and nasal and sinus cancers, says Jonathan Boltax, MD, a doctor at the Huntsman Cancer Institute who specializes in lung cancer.
"That's been seen in people who are working in industrial areas with increased exposure," he says. People who smoke electronic cigarettes could be exposing themselves to this risk in addition to other unknown health effects.
"The perception that they're safe is incorrect," Boltax says. The new research highlights how little we know about the health risks that could be hiding in electronic cigarettes, he says.
"The real situation is, we don't know what the long-term effects of e-cigarettes are," Boltax says. "We're not going to know for 10 to 20 years what the adverse effects are."
And it's not just adults who are putting themselves at risk. A growing number of Utah teens are using electronic cigarettes. According to a Utah Department of Health report, 12 percent of Utah teens had tried electronic cigarettes in the previous year.
The authors of the new research point out that the way electronic cigarettes deliver formaldehyde could be even more dangerous. "Formaldehyde-releasing agents may deposit more efficiently in the respiratory tract than gaseous formaldehyde, and so they could carry a higher slope factor for cancer," they write.