A URMC research team led by professor of Environmental Medicine Dr. Irfan Rahman released a study on the health hazards of e-cigarette vapors that suggests that their inhalation can lead to lung damage.

The study, published on Feb. 6 in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, shows that e-vapors can cause damage to lung cells in humans and mice, especially by dripping the flavored liquids (known as e-juices) directly onto the heating element of the e-cigarette.

“URMC is the first to yield results on the specific area of e-vapors inducing toxicity, oxidative stress, and inflammation,” Dr. Rahman said in an interview conducted through URMC Public Relations and Communications. “We were the first to discover that ‘dripping’ of e-juices onto the heating element generates free radicals and oxidative stress that leads to lung damage.”

According to the study, certain flavors of e-juices cause more stress and subsequent damage on lung tissue than others. When asked if he believed that the study would prompt regulation within the e-cigarette industry, Dr. Rahman was unsure but added that “if regulation does occur it will probably focus initially on flavorings and e-juices such as candy and cinnamon.”

Continued reassurances of safety from manufacturers, widespread belief that e-cigarettes are benign (particularly when compared to regular cigarettes) and a lack of regulation around e-cigarettes has led many institutions to research the long-term health effects of these devices. Johns Hopkins University previously linked the toxic chemicals generated in e-vapors to immune system problems.

The impetus for UR to conduct research in this area stemmed from a question regarding the environmental impacts of e-cigarette disposal. The toxins and metals in e-cigarette vapors and waste are a safety concern, according to Dr. Rahman, prompting an earlier study into the effects of pollution from the disposal of the devices.

Inspiration for the recent study also came from outside URMC faculty. “Two summers ago an undergraduate student working with us discovered there was no product information, government regulations, or guidelines on how to recycle or dispose of the e-cig components,” Dr. Rahman said. “This student’s astute observation raised a big concern about the potential environmental hazards and the lack of research into the topic.”

The e-vapor study began in 2012. According to Dr. Rahman, research will continue beyond this study “to further explore the hazardous health effects of e-cigarette vaping and secondhand exposures to children, teenagers, and individuals who are susceptible to allergens and irritants.”

The study was funded by a grant awarded to RIT. Collaborators on the study include RIT’s Risa Robinson and URMC’s Chad Lerner, Scott McIntosh, Deborah J. Ossip and Alison Elder.

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