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Are E-Cigs Safe? A Cigarette Comparison

Filed in News & Politics by on March 20, 2012

Cigarette smoke

Tons of speculation and misinformation has been thrown around on the safety of electronic cigarettes. Before we get into the details of the contents of electronic cigarette vapor, let’s take a closer look at the conventional tobacco cigarette. Cigarettes contain 599 additives approved by the US government for use in manufacture. While these ingredients are approved for foods, they were not tested by burning them which changes their properties. The burning of a cigarette produces around 4000 chemicals of which over 60 have been identified as known carcinogens. What is a carcinogen? A carcinogen is a substance or agent producing or inciting cancer. If a substance is known to promote or aggravate cancer, but not necessarily cause cancer, it may also be called a carcinogen. Cancer is caused by changes in a cell’s DNA (genetic blueprint). Some carcinogens do not affect DNA directly, but may cause cells to divide at a faster-than-normal rate, which could increase the chances that DNA changes will occur. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a part of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its major goal is to identify the causes of cancer. It also has the most widely used system for classifying carcinogens. Over the past 30 years, the IARC has evaluated the cancer-causing potential of over 900 chemicals, placing them into the following groups.

  • Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 3: Unclassifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans
  • Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans

Because of the difficulty faced in testing these carcinogens, most of them are listed in groups 2A, 2B and group 3. Only a little over 100 are classified as “carcinogenic to humans”. What is in a cigarette, before it is lit? The cigarette itself contains a large number of ingredients. These include the tobacco leaf, paper, ink (used to write on the filter and paper) and the filter. An additional 599 additives are added to the tobacco. Some of them are added as a part of the agricultural process required to grow a healthy tobacco plant (fertilizer, insecticides, metals absorbed from the soil etc.), while some chemicals become attached to the tobacco leaf during the post-harvesting process. And then there are some chemicals intentionally added with the intent of altering the chemical effects or taste of the smoked product. A few of them shall be discussed below. -Ammonium compound additives are used to make cigarettes provide high levels of ‘free’ nicotine which increase the addictive ‘kick’ of the nicotine. This is done by increasing the alkalinity of the nicotine, allowing it to vapor easier. -Additives are used to enhance the taste of the smoke, making the product more desirable to consumers. While this is relatively harmless, the act to make the product more ‘attractive’ and ‘palatable’ in itself a cause for concern -Sweeteners and chocolate flavors may be added to make cigarettes more marketable to women, children and first time users. Menthol helps numb the throat so the smoker cannot feel the smoke’s aggravating effects. -Additives like cocoa may be used to dilate the airways allowing the smoke an easier and deeper passage into the lungs exposing the body to more nicotine. This also results in higher levels of tar. -Some additives are toxic and addictive in their own right or in combination. When they are burned, new products of combustion are formed which may be toxic. -Additives are used to mask the smell and visibility of side-stream smoke. This makes it hard for people to protect themselves from second-hand smoke and undermines the notion that smoking is an anti-social activity with health risks to passive smoking. Click Here for a full list of cigarette additives Chemicals found in cigarette smoke Cigarette smoke contains over 4000 chemical compounds. Many are toxic, some of which are known carcinogens. Even second hand smoke is extremely dangerous to breathe. A few of the harmful chemicals (and where/how they are used) are: -Acetone: used in nail-polish remover and paint stripper -Acrolein: Extremely toxic substance used to produce acrylic acid. It is considered a possible human carcinogen and is the cause of emphysema. -Arsenic: Deadly poison, found in rat poison -Ammonia: used in dry cleaning -Benzene: found in pesticides and gasoline.It is found in high levels in cigarette smoke. Can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches and unconsciousness. Associated with leukemia. -Cadmium: Toxic heavy metal used in car batteries. -Carbon Monoxide: a gas that replaces oxygen in the body. Found in car exhaust fumes. -DDT: Pesticide used to kill insects -Formaldehyde: Used for preserving dead bodies. Known to cause cancer along with gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin problems. -Hydrogen Cyanide: Used to kill people in gas chambers executions. -Tar: used to tarmac roads. It is the collective term describing toxins produced by cmoking cigarettes. It coats the lungs much like soot from logs coats chimneys. -Vinyl Chloride: Used to make vinyl products. Short-term exposure causes dizziness, fatigue and headaches. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer and liver damage.   Carcinogens found in cigarette smoke Of the 4000+ chemicals that are found in cigarette smoke, the following have been identified as known carcinogens.

4-Aminobiphenyl Methylchrysene
Aromatic Amines Mehtylfluoranthene
Aromatic Nitrohydrocarbons Mehtylnaphtalenes
Arsenic 1-Methylindoles
Benzene 3-Methylcatechol
Benz{a}anthracene 4-Methylcatechol
Benzo{a}pyrene 4(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-butanone
Benzo {b}fluoranthene 2-Naphthylamine
Benzo {c}phenanthrene Nickel
Benzo{e}pyrene Nitropropane
Benzo{j}fluoranthene Nitrosodimethylamine
Cadmium Nitrosoethymethylamine
Chromium Nitrosodiethylamine
Chrysene Nitrosodi-n-propylamine
Dibenz{a,j}acridine Nitrosodi-n-butylamine
Dibenz{a,c}anthracene Nitrosopyrrolidine
Dibenz{a,h}acridine Nitrosopiperidine
Dibenzo{a,h}pyrene Nitrosomorpholine
Dibenzo{a,i}pyrene N’-Nitrosonornicotine
Dibenzo{c,g}carbazole N’-Nitrosoanabasine
Dichlorostilbene N’-Nitrosoanatabine
4-Ethycatechol Polonium-210 (Radon)
Formaldehyde Urethane
Hydrazine Vinyl Chloride

Electronic Cigarette Vapor vs. Tobacco Cigarette smoke In a test conducted by the Korean Electronic Cigarette Association, a comparison was drawn between the smoke from a regular tobacco cigarette and an electronic cigarette. The test was conducted on a scientific machine that read the inhaled components. It was tested on 8 puffs per 1 cigarette versus 8 puffs on an electronic cigarette. This was then followed up with 16 puffs and 24 puffs testing. The results are below.

# Detected Ingredients E-cigarette Cigarette
Detected % Detected %
1 Propylene glycol X 66.35% x 6.17%
2 Nicotine X 5.39% x 55.22%
3 Glycerine X 27.18% x 4.70%
4 Docosane x 2.82%
5 Acetic acid x 2.82%
6 Propionic acid x 0.25%
7 Furfuryl alcohol x 0.12%
8 Cyclohexane x 0.19%
9 Acetamide x 0.02%
10 3-Methylvaleric acid x 0.26%
11 2-hydroxy-3-methyl- x 0.32%
12 2,4-di-tert-butyl-6 x 2.62%
13 O-cresol x 0.37%
14 Phenol x 1.07%
15 2-pyrrolidone x 0.19%
16 Triacetin x 5.17%
17 2,4-Dimethylphenol x 0.18%
18 p-Cresol x 0.92%
19 4-Ethyl-3-methylpyridine x 0.13%
20 4-ethylphenol x 0.35%
21 2-methoxy-4-vinylphenol x 0.58%
22 4H-pyran-4-one, 2,3- x 0.80%
23 3-pyridinol x 1.40%
24 15-crown-5 x 0.54%
25 Pyrimidine x 0.72%
26 Thiophene x 1.07%
27 1,4,7,10,13,16- x 0.18%
28 monoethyl ether x 0.25%
Diethylene glycol
29 Hexadecanoic acid x 1.66%

The FDA stated that electronic cigarette products contained detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed. It is important to point out that these potential carcinogens the FDA found in the tested samples are also found in many products consumed on a daily basis worldwide, including beer, bacon, fish, pickles and some meats and cheeses. They are found in electronic cigarettes because the nicotine used is extracted from tobacco and you can see from the chart below, exactly what the comparisons are.

Maximum Tobacco-Specific Nitrosamine Levels in Various
Cigarettes and Nicotine-Delivery Products (ng/g, except for nicotine gum and patch which are ng/patch or ng/gum piece)
Product NNN NNK NAT NAB Total
Electronic Cigarette 3.87 1.46 2.16 0.69 8.18
Nicotine Gum 2 ND ND ND 2
Nicotine Patch ND 8 ND ND 8
Swedish Snus 2400
Canadian Mild Ultra 445 540 552 NQ 1537
Du Maurier Regular 308 523 448 NQ 1277
Export A Ultra-Light King 794 848 752 122 2516
Gitanes Kings 6369 1477 2965 354 11165
Benson & Hedges Ultra Mild 522 733 629 NQ 1884
Winston 2200 580 560 25 3365
Newport 1100 830 1900 55 3885
Camel 3100 1400 2800 150 7450
Skoal 4500 470 4100 220 9290
Marlboro 4300 1800 4900 190 11190

It is evident from the above data that vapor from electronic cigarettes is much safer than the smoke produced from a regular tobacco cigarette. Propylene glycol (PG) has a great reputation for safe use in a wide range of consumer products including food, animal feed, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. It is also an ingredient used to make non-toxic antifreeze. The media fails to report that they are referring to non-toxic antifreeze giving consumers a false impression. See our blog piece for more information on the Safety of Propylene Glycol. References:

  1. Cancer Research UK – link
  2. – quitsmoking
  3. Second hand smoke fact sheet – CDC – link
  4. European Commission Joint Research Centre – Tobacco, Cigarettes and Cigarette Smoke An Overviewlink
  5. Tobacco free Utah – link
  6. The Chemical Constituents in Cigarettes and Cigarette Smoke: Priorities for Harm Reduction – link
  7. Oxford Journals – Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Tobacco smoke carcinogens and Lung Cancer

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