What are The Health Risks of Electronic Cigarettes
Every week thousands of smokers are making the switch to electronic cigarettes, and many more are using the new technology to cut down their tobacco intake. Not everyone’s sure about them yet, though. Surveys show that many smokers are interested in e-cigs but don’t know if it’s the right decision. One of the worries that’s mentioned most often is the possible health effects of inhaling the vapour, and unfortunately this concern is being exaggerated by opponents of e-cigarettes. It’s common to hear claims like “we don’t know what’s in them” or “there might be long-term effects we don’t know about.” How worried should people really be about these issues?
Nobody’s arguing that electronic cigarettes are 100% safe, but does that actually matter? They’re used as a replacement for smoking, so the question that really matters is if they’re safer than lit tobacco. The answer to that is a definite “yes” – in fact they’re many times safer. Most experts believe that e-cigs eliminate at least 99% of the health risks of smoking, and possibly much more. Professor John Britten of the Royal College of Physicians has said that if every smoker in Britain switched to electronic cigarettes then five MILLION people who’re alive today would avoid premature death. So while nobody’s arguing that e-cigs are absolutely safe, nobody seriously disputes the fact that they’re nowhere near as dangerous as actually smoking. Looked at this way, improved health is a great reason to switch to e-cigs.
Of course it’s better to avoid any unnecessary health risk if you can, so what are the actual dangers of electronic cigarettes? The fact is that none are known. Despite what opponents say we do know what’s in the liquid, and all the ingredients are known to be safe. The argument that they’re a new product and there might be long-term risks we don’t know about isn’t very convincing either. Yes, there might be a long term risk that hasn’t been identified – that’s true for everything, after all. The chances don’t seem high though. The main ingredients have all been in use for decades or longer. Propylene glycol has been used in asthma inhalers since the 1950s, so if there were dangers from inhaling it the chances are we’d know by now. The same goes for the flavourings, which are licensed for use in food and medical nicotine inhalators. Nicotine itself is now generally acknowledged to be safe in normal doses, and even has many beneficial effects.
Critics of electronic cigarettes argue that even if the ingredients have been safely used for 50 years or more, nobody knows if it’s safe to regularly inhale them. Again that’s not true. Laboratory tests have shown that propylene glycol can be safely inhaled over long periods, and most people will suffer no ill effects. There is a minority who’re sensitive to it, but the simple solution is to use a liquid based on vegetable glycerine instead – yes, that’s known to be safe, too. What about the fact that the liquid is heated? Actually that doesn’t matter. The most dangerous thing about smoking is the fact that the tobacco is burned. This causes chemical changes that produce toxins and cancer-causing substances. If tobacco hasn’t been exposed to high temperatures it’s far less dangerous. Snus, a type of tobacco popular in Sweden and Norway, is processed without high temperatures and used by tucking a small bag of it behind the lip. Snus users don’t suffer from any more health effects than non-users. In an e-cigarette the heating element only gets hot enough to evaporate the liquid, not to burn it, so the toxins don’t get produced.
It’s true that the vapour from e-cigs contains toxic substances, including tobacco-specific nitrosamines and formaldehyde. If you look at the tests, though, these are always listed as “trace levels” or “detectable level”. What this means in scientific tests is that the substance was detected, but at extremely low levels. It doesn’t matter how poisonous something is – if the level of it is low enough it won’t do any harm. Even people who lead a perfectly healthy lifestyle are exposed to thousands of poisons every day, but at levels too low to do any harm. A raw carrot contains over a dozen chemicals that can cause cancer, but nobody is saying carrots are dangerous – that’s because the levels are far too low. It’s the same with e-cigarettes.
What about the fact that nicotine is poisonous?
This is true, but more and more scientists are now saying that it’s nowhere near as poisonous as people used to believe. It’s not true that if you get a few drops of e-liquid on your skin, or even swallow it, you could get poisoned. It’s definitely a good idea to handle it carefully and avoid spilling it on your skin, and it should always be kept in a childproof bottle and out of children’s reach, but it’s no more dangerous than bleach or many other chemicals you can find in any home. In fact a small container of e-cig liquid is many times less dangerous than a litre bottle of Mr Muscle!
Can we say that there’s absolutely no health risk from electronic cigarettes?
Of course not, but then we can’t say that about anything else either. Even water becomes poisonous if you drink enough of it – most people who die after taking Ecstasy are actually killed by water intoxication. What we can be sure about is that no health risks are known and all the ingredients have been safely used for many years. If you’re delaying the switch from smoking because you’re concerned about the dangers of vaping, you can stop worrying!