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Electronic cigarettes can contain high levels of the cancer-causing compound formaldehyde, the same material found in cigarettes, embalming fluid, and disinfectant, according to researchers.
Scientists at Portland State University tested the vapor released from e-cigarettes at the highest voltage level and found the carcinogen in the liquid aerosol. The amount of formaldehyde released from e-cigarettes is even even higher than from regular cigarettes.
In a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists said that long-term vaping could give users a lifetime cancer risk five to 15 times higher than the risk associated with long-term smoking.
In addition, 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.
E-cigarettes are marketed as a way for people to consume the nicotine found in cigarettes in a “healthier” way, without the added ingredients in tobacco cigarettes. The devices heat a liquid that contains nicotine and other additives, which is then inhaled as a vapor.
“Vaping” has become a popular alternative to smoking, and the vapor produced by e-cigarettes is odorless, which lets users consume the vapor in places where they wouldn’t be able to smoke. Vaping was also the word of the year in 2014, a testament to the growing popularity of the smoking-replacement technology, the users of which have become part of a hip sub-culture.
Scientists tested their e-cigarette on its highest voltage setting, a level that many people wouldn’t use but that is still supported by the device.
The American Vaping Association dismissed the scientists’ findings.
“They clearly did not talk to [people who use e-cigarettes] to understand this,” Gregory Conley the association’s president, told NPR News. “They think, ‘Oh well. If we hit the button for so many seconds and that produces formaldehyde, then we have a new public health crisis to report.'”
But much is still unknown about the long-term effects of e-cigarette use and their vaporous byproduct. Earlier this year, the FDA moved to regulate e-cigarettes and the World Health Organization proposed a ban on vaping indoors to mirror one on indoor tobacco use.
The Portland study shows that vaping carries risks similar to tobacco smoking—at least, if you’re giving your e-cigarette a lot of juice.
Selena Larson is a technology reporter based in San Francisco who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. Her work explores new technologies and the way they impact industries, human behavior, and security and privacy. Since leaving the Daily Dot, she's reported for CNN Money and done technical writing for cybersecurity firm Dragos.