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By: Joseph Allen.
Joseph Allen is an Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at the Harvard Chan School, where he joined in 2014. At the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Mr Allen is working to transform the design and construction of indoor spaces by revealing how ventilation, temperature, lighting, and noise affect health. Much of his research is based on products within buildings that may affect health.
Last Updated: November 20th, 2018.


Electronic cigarettes and vaping is a relatively new practice of smoking and the community has grown massively over a short period of time. As a result, there have been many studies published looking at the true effects of short-term vaping and the potential dangers that longterm vaping may cause. The simple fact is we can only take an educated guess at this point, the data is simply not there. The latest studies show that the heating of propylene glycol or PG as known in the vaping community does cause a chemical reaction and produces formaldehyde. With this information, we can actually take a rather accurate statement, that vaping, although much better than smoking, is not as safe as some people make out.
Equipment associated with vaping

Not Just Nicotine

Electronic cigarettes or e-cigs for short are becoming so popular these days it’s impossible to walk down any busy street without seeing someone puffing on one. Whether it’s the small pod vapes, or these huge box mods some more experienced vapers use. Yes, they have become a great success story for those wishing to quit smoking by starting to vape. But does this new phenomenon really cure all the health problems associated with nicotine smoking?

Unfortunately, nicotine isn’t the only chemical produced by e-cigs, Formaldehyde, a naturally occurring organic compound, which poses significant health issues has also shown been shown to be present from a number of studies.

Vaping Chemistry

Sweet Chemestry

The problem stems from chemistry which happens when propylene glycol (PG) or glycerol which is present in pretty much all e-liquids, is heated, these carrier fluids are then producing Formaldehyde. Most e-liquids come in different strengths of propylene glycol, but the most common e-liquids hold between 30-50% PG. What many people fail to understand is although they believe they know the chemicals that go into making e-liquids and how safe they are when heated and essentially evaporated the chemistry of these ingredients change and it is this chemical reaction that creates the blurred lines.
Studies on vaping and e-cigs

Studies after Studies

This is not anything new, in fact back in 2015 the New England Journal of Medicine reported that they had actually measured formaldehyde in e-cigs. This was immediately questioned on a number of issues, such as the voltage used in the experiment far outweighed the actual voltage many vapers use, you can read the full unsupported declaration here. Another big concern with the paper was that one of the authors was actually reported as receiving money from an organization that receives funding from a tobacco company. Whilst another author received funding from an e-cig company. Hardly what you’d call an impartial view.

But this time the critics were a little bit eager venting there distrust, as many other studies have now drawn the same conclusions, such as the Aldehyde Detection in Electronic Cigarette Aerosols and the Flavoring Compounds Dominate Toxic Aldehyde Production during E-Cigarette Vaping.

I even found, along with my colleagues, a study in the Journal Environmental Science and Technology that showed formaldehyde being produced at above-ceiling heights in normal vaping conditions, that’s levels that are not allowed in any workspace for any amount of time.
Vaping is not the same as smoking

What About Diacetyl

A lot of vapers are familiar with the term popcorn lung, this term derived from a group of workers getting sick when working in a microwave popcorn packaging plant. In fact is was a severe and irreversible lung disease known medically as obliterative bronchiolitis. After intense investigations, it was found that those working with heating of the artificial butter flavoring Diacetyl, became ill. In the early days of e-liquids Diacetyl was also used in some vanilla and butter flavors, this has largely been eliminated now, but there are still some on the market with Diacetyl flavoring.

Now although many e-liquid manufacturers have moved away from Diacetyl, it does make you wonder what they are using, and whether the same effects will happen when this e-liquid is heated. There is a good chance that a new illness will have the nickname of Vapers Lung.
Don't panic, Vaping is safer than smoking

Final Words

Now that said, there is huge support for e-cigs and I also agree that e-cigs or any vaping device is, no doubt, a better option than smoking traditional cigarettes. But although it may be safer it still is not one hundred percent safe, and you should consider the long-term issues of vaping on your health if it is something you are considering on using. My advice would be for a smoker to try e-cigs, but slowly lower the nicotine levels to zero, then quitting vaping will be a lot easier than quitting smoking as you would no longer be addicted to the nicotine, it would be just a bad habit.

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Joseph Allen
Joseph Allen
Dr. Allen is an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Co-Director at the Center for Climate, Health C-CHANGE and the Global Environment and also the Director of the Healthy Buildings Program