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Researchers Find Toxic Metals in E-Cigarette Aerosols

Unsafe levels of nickel and other metals were detected in multiple types of devices and flavors, with some exceeding regulatory limits. 

Nicole Hughes

Several popular e-cigarette devices expose users to at least a dozen toxic metals in dangerous concentrations, according to a new study by researchers in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering.

The findings were published online inEnvironmental Health Perspectives in December.  

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are smoking devices that produce an aerosol by heating liquid that usually contains nicotine, the addictive drug in cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products. E-cigarette use – or vaping is popular among teens and young adults, some of whom have never smoked combustible cigarettes. 

The research team compared the concentrations of 12 metals in aerosol samples collected from three types of devices: modifiable devices, or MODs, pod systems or PODs, and disposable devices, or d-Pods. They also compared the metal concentrations by device brand, and by flavors - tobacco, mint, and fruit. Toxic metals were detected in every sample analyzed.  

The study results indicate that most of the metal concentrations were higher in MOD devices, while POD and disposables were found to have significantly higher cobalt, which is toxic to the lungs, and nickel, which is a carcinogen. Tobacco flavors of PODs and d-PODs had higher metal concentrations as compared to mint and fruit flavors.

“This is a significant finding, as the FDA is only approving tobacco flavors,” says Ana Rule, PhD, assistant professor.  The researchers also discovered that a portion of their samples exceeded regulatory and health-based inhalation limits for nickel, chromium, lead, manganese, and arsenic. 

Because of the substantial range of metal concentrations, there is a need to establish manufacturing standards for these devices,” says Angela Aherrera, DrPH, a postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Health and Engineering. And because the devices are popular among users as young as middle-school-age, there is a need for more transparency on their ingredients and education on their risks, she says.

“There is an urgent need for educational efforts to reach the youth regarding what they are exposed to when they use these devices and their potential health effects.

Metal Concentrations in E-Cigarette Aerosol Samples: A Comparison by Device Type and Flavorwas co-authored by Angela Aherrera, Joyce Jy Lin, Rui Chen, Mina Tehrani, Andrew Schultze, Aryan Borole, Stefan Tanda, Walter Goessler, and Ana M. Rule 

Environmental Health and Engineering is cross-divisional department spanning the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Whiting School of Engineering. This hybrid department is uniquely designed to lead pioneering research and prepare the next generation of scholars to solve critical and complex issues at the interface of public health and engineering.