Fearless Researchers

Exposing e-cigarette health risks

When PSU scientists James Pankow, David Peyton and Robert Strongin set out to study the vapor from e-cigarettes they weren’t sure what they would find. Regular cigarettes produce cancer-causing chemicals, but the electronic versions are billed as being safer.

The three researchers put that theory to the test. What they found surprised them and made international headlines after the results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

At high voltages, e-cigarettes produce from five to 15 times the amount of formaldehyde as regular cigarettes, their research showed. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Because they contain no tobacco, however, e-cigarettes are largely unregulated.

“E-cigarettes are becoming more complicated and more like real cigarettes by the day,” Pankow says. “They use extremely high temperatures to vaporize their fluids and contain high levels of chemical additives.”

Pankow, who has a dual appointment in the PSU Department of Chemistry and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says it will take many more years to determine the health risks of “vaping,” but adds: “No one should assume e-cigarettes are safe.”

Strongin, also with the chemistry department, says he expects more discoveries on e-cigarettes. “Now that we have methods that can detect this hidden formaldehyde, we can look for other toxins that might be posing a risk to e-cigarette users,” he says.

Peyton, the lead researcher, is a PSU chemistry professor and co-founder of DesignMedix, a drug discovery and development company in Portland. He says the trio’s research hit a nerve.

“We’re certainly getting a lot of response from far and wide,” Peyton says. The scientists have been called on to discuss their findings with elected officials who are considering new regulations.

“There needs to be more research on the risks and on how to make them safer,” he says. “These devices are here to stay.”

Read more about PSU's e-cigarette research: OregonLive: Oregon Senate approves ban on indoor e-cigarette use, sales to minors.

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