The Formaldehyde Question

Posted 26th January 2015 by Dave Cross
According to the Portland State University, faculty researchers reveal that e-cigarette vapour can contain hidden formaldehyde at levels five to 15 times higher than regular cigarettes. The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, although no details of the investigation were included.

Formaldehyde is a toxic gas at room temperature, combined in many substances around the home and part of the aldehyde group of chemicals. It is considered dangerous to health and is linked to a number of cancers.

It is used in the manufacture of Delrin, a plastic frequently found in atomiser and mod insulators. Other uses include paints, explosives, textile production, vehicle parts, carpets and kitchen products. Oh, and food.

“The popular ‘tank system’ e-cigarettes allow users to really turn up the heat and deliver high amounts of vapour, or e-cigarette smoke,” said David H. Peyton, PSU chemistry professor. "Our research shows that when heated at higher temperatures, e-cigarette juices can vaporize and form large amounts of ‘hidden formaldehyde,’ five to 15 times higher than the amount of formaldehyde in traditional cigarettes.” 

Payton has previously launched a negative written assault on vaping, and his colleague David Peyton is prone to unscientific kitty litter & think of the children scare tactics too.

The research used a variable voltage mod, and applied 3.3V and 5.0V to a top coil CE4 atomiser for 4 seconds per puff. No formaldehyde was discovered at 3.3V. At 5.0V, researchers claim to find formaldehyde levels up to 15 times higher than that found in traditional cigarette smoke.

Predictably, a huge amount of scorn has been poured on this ‘study’ by vapers, scientists and public health experts.

Clive Bates commented: “This study is so poorly designed and inherently misleading that it should not have been conducted, should not have been written up, should not have been published in the NEJM or anywhere, should not have been pitched to the media, and its finding should be completely ignored as worthless.”

Doctor Farsalinos has looked into the study and concluded that the team did not find formaldehyde but formaldehyde hemiacetals. He states: “there is absolutely no evidence that hemiacetals are toxic or carcinogenic. In fact, it is possible that the formation of hemiacetals might protect against damage induced by formaldehyde.”

All commentators are highlighting the distinct probability that what the team were measuring was a dry hit phenomenon, studied by Farsalinos, something not part of normal use of vaping equipment.

Even new vapers realise that different juices, wicks and coils require different settings in order to reach a flavour sweet spot and avoid dry hits. The clearomiser used is archaic in design and not built for 12W vaping as replicated in this experiment.

Professor Peter Hajek, Director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Barts, said: “The study went searching for formaldehyde, one of carcinogens that are also present in cigarette smoke. It found it when e-liquid was heated to maximum and drawn via long puffs by a machine. In e-cigarette use by humans, overheating the liquid generates acrid tasting ‘dry puff’, which is unpleasant and avoided rather than slowly inhaled. When a chicken is burned, the resulting black crisp will contain carcinogens but that does not mean that chicken is carcinogenic. Without overheating the e-liquid, no formaldehyde was detected.”

“Vaping may not be as safe as breathing clear mountain air, but it is much safer than smoking. It would be a shame if this study persuaded smokers who cannot or do not want to stop smoking and contemplate vaping that they might as well stick to their deadly cigarettes,” he continued.

Top Photo credit: nagillum via photopin cc

IMAGE: 'L'Assiette au Beurre' by Jossot

 Dave Cross
Article by Dave Cross
Freelance writer, physicist, karateka, dog walker