Harvard E-Cigarette Study is Misleading

The use of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, may kill you or so researchers want headlines to read. But those headlines, along with a recently released study, are very misleading.

In the study, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concludes that chemicals found in the flavoring liquids for e-cigs, such as Diacetyl, 2,3-Pentanedoine, and Acetoin, represent significant respiratory health risks. The health risks are based on prior cases where workers manufacturing microwave popcorn were exposed to similar chemicals, contracting a condition that became known as “popcorn lung.”

Despite claims of significant health risks, the authors only tested a minute number of available flavors, failed to explain their findings in context, and failed to compare the quantity of chemicals found in the flavors to chemicals present in traditional cigarettes.

There are roughly 7,000 different flavors of e-cig solutions, all from a wide variety of manufacturers. Though 7,000 flavors exist, the authors only tested 51 flavors, or 0.72 percent. Since they tested less than one percent of the available flavors, the authors’ sample size is not statistically significant. That is to say, the likelihood that test results on the remaining 99.28 percent will yield wildly different results is very high.

The authors also did not rely on any scientific method for selecting the tested flavors. Instead, selection was based on items the authors “deemed were appealing to youth,” which included alcohol flavors such as brandy, rum and tequila.

Assuming the study to be accurate, it is impossible to draw any substantive health risk correlations between workers contracting popcorn lung and the chemicals found in e-cig liquids. Other than the presence of the same chemical – diacetyl – both in the popcorn factories and vaping liquids, there is no discussion regarding the airborne quantities of the chemicals. Thus, while the authors list the estimated mass of diacetyl present in the vaping chemicals, they fail to explain how that mass corresponds with federal recommended exposure limits or the concentrations of diacetyl found in microwave popcorn factories.

The authors also failed to compare the chemicals found in e-cig liquids to traditional cigarettes. In previous studies, at least two of the chemicals linked to popcorn lung and subject to the school of Public Health’s e-cig study, diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione, are also present in traditional cigarettes. These previous studies also establish that traditional cigarette smokers are exposed to diacetyl and 2,3-pentandione in concentrations far exceeding National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) occupational limitations.

Without a one-for-one comparison between the e-cig liquids and traditional cigarettes, the study is virtually meaningless. It is impossible to determine from the findings whether e-cigarettes pose a more significant risk for contracting popcorn lung than either working in a popcorn factory or smoking traditional cigarettes.

Image courtesy of Vaping360