On Vaping and the Formaldehyde Thing

Anyone who knows me personally (or, failing that, attends my livestreams) is almost certainly aware, but about five months ago, I made the switch from traditional cigarettes to a vaporizer device, in hopes of getting rid of a lot of the long-term issues cigarettes cause for me (hacking, smelling like cigarettes, a dude with a scythe following me around pretending I can’t see him). For the most part, it’s generally been a good transition, I think; I can smell and taste things significantly better than I used to, my breathing is better (if not where it used to be), I don’t cough… at all, really, and in general it’s been a positive change in my life. That’s not to say that vaporizing is some kind of amazing miracle alternative to smoking, of course. For one thing, it’s a bit of a difficult thing to really get into; it took me nearly three years to really get to a point where I could find the right tools and fluid balance such that my body’s immediate response to it wasn’t “Oh HELL no,” and I’ve met several people who have never had luck with it, so it’s clearly not a winning proposition for everyone. It’s also worth pointing out, though, that we kind of don’t know what using electronic cigarettes and vaporizers does to people long-term yet. While we know that nicotine isn’t great for your body, it’s more on the level of a worse version of caffeine rather than “death and destruction, woe to all,” and we don’t know what the rest of the chemicals in e-liquid might do. Aside from the scares a few years back about Chinese produced liquids having antifreeze in them, most modern liquid one can purchase in the US is manufactured in the US, and any website you go to is going to actively advertise how they make their fluids in FDA-grade facilities, using FDA-approved processes, because they want you to know their fluid is “safe.” It’s not, obviously, but not because they’re not trying to make it so; we just don’t know enough about e-liquid to say what the effects are, but hey, it’s made in the USA, so clearly you can feel safe using it, right?

Which brings us to the formaldehyde thing.

Basically, a report came out this week (either yesterday or today) in the New England Journal of Medicine, and with a name like Hidden Formaldehyde in E-Cigarette Aerosols, you kind of know that there’s going to be a bit of a concern about its contents. The report itself is here, if you want to read the particulars of the piece, and it’s fairly worthwhile for those who have an interest in this sort of thing. Of course, the daily news cycle has also latched onto the reports with the exact degree of accuracy you’d expect, basically taking the results of the reports and saying “E-cigarettes release formaldehyde!” and boiling down the results to their most base, elementary points, so… if you do use them, expect that question for a few weeks.

Now, while I am in no way an actual scientist, I have done a lot more research on this particular topic than most, and I don’t have a dog in this fight unlike the news cycles or pro-vapor blogs that will be reporting on this, so while I can’t speak to the specific scientific method, I can give a general idea of what a lot of the points in the report mean. Since I’ve seen the report popping up various places, as the news, the internet in general, and concerned Facebook friends have been posting and reposting the data, I figure it’s worthwhile to get something out there that at least clarifies some of the details rather than simply saying “FORMALDEHYDE RAWR!” a bunch.

So let’s break it down a bit.

The report itself basically says that the experiment team used a liquid from the company Halo (not the FPS), dubbed “Cafe Mocha,” for their testing. I’m going to assume they did so because Halo is a fairly “known” brand of vapor, but that choice wasn’t great insofar as it relates to giving people reviewing the document information. Without getting too involved in this explanation, basically there are two different types of liquids that are commonly used in making e-liquid, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, which are used in different concentrations based on desired physical effect, allergies to PG, and manufacturer preference. The stuff in the e-cigarettes you’ll see in a convenience store, for reference, is 100% PG almost every single time. Most manufacturers of liquids allow users to customize their particular fluid ratio, because users have specific preferences more often than not, but Halo not only has a specific ratio they use, they consider it “proprietary information” that other manufacturers would “attempt to duplicate,” because they want to make their shit sound awesome, basically. I’ve never used their flavors for a variety of reasons*, so I can’t speak to that aspect of things, but I can speak to the fact that, without really knowing what the PG/VG ratio is, we can’t really say how adjusting that might impact the test. That said, you can probably assume it’s a ratio that leans higher in PG, likely 60/40 or 70/30, as general user specifications seem to imply this. This may be important, as while the report indicates both the PG and VG are at fault here, it’s possible one or the other may play an important part in why this is happening, so hopefully further tests will utilize more variable fluid concentrations.

The actual testing was done via ten “puffs” over five minutes (or every thirty seconds), for about three to four seconds, which is generally consistent with how someone who uses the device is likely to utilize it. The analysis then confirmed, essentially, that the generation of formaldehyde releasing agents (essentially, chemicals that release formaldehyde) is about five to fifteen times higher than in normal cigarettes. That’s pretty brutal, right? Well, there are some caveats. For one, the report compares 3ml of fluid against one pack of cigarettes as a comparable number, which is fair, though it’s pertinent to note that I presently utilize about 3ml of fluid per day, while I was smoking about two packs a day, so in that sort of case, the actual exposure rate varies. Further, the vapor itself doesn’t actually release formaldehyde itself, but “formaldehyde hemiacetal,” which, while similar, isn’t quite the same thing (though for the purposes of this discussion it might as well be; again, I’m not a scientist, and the people performing the experiment don’t discuss the differences).

Perhaps most notably, however, is that the experiment utilized two test conditions for the vaporizer itself, as the testers operated the device at 3.3v and 5v. Basically, voltage dictates a lot about the quality of vapor the user would receive during a pull from their respective device, and the higher the voltage, the more powerful the draw from the vaporizer. Some users will try to get higher voltages out of their device to generate more smoke from a pull, for personal satisfaction, “throat hit” (the feeling as you inhale) and so on. This is notable, because at the 3.3v range, the testers noted that they saw no indication of the formaldehyde causing agents, but did see them at the 5v range. Why is this notable? Well, mostly because, as Gregory Conley (a lawyer for the American Vaping Association) pointed out, people don’t do that. Real talk: I use my vaporizer at 3.2v, and it’s about in the middle-range as far as performance goes (that is, it’s not one of the entry level NJOY units you’ll see at 7-11, but it’s not a box mod** that costs hundreds of dollars either). Now, what level of voltage I can generally use effectively tends to be related to the ohms the particular device can handle, but for reference, the highest ohm atomizer heat I’ve ever used hit 2.7ohms, and by default, my battery would register that it could handle about 4.0v safely. The first time I tried a hit at that level, it tasted like absolute shit, so I turned it down, and I’ve never felt the need to turn it up since.

Now, obviously it’s possible, and even likely, that someone out there has a box mod that can handle this sort of thing, but honestly, someone out there is also hand-making their own fluids with 36mg of nicotine as well, and those people are basically playing chicken with Death no matter how you slice it. When you’re talking about normal products that can be purchased online or in e-cigarette shops***, however, that’s a lot less likely. While this article breaks down a lot of the relationship between watts, amps and ohms, the major point of interest is the image at the bottom that explains actual ratios. Specifically, note that for a 5.0v output, you’d essentially need a device that can handle around 3.0ohms, which most retail atomizers can’t handle. Even then, that’s at the “safe” level; for “optimal” performance, which is admittedly the author’s preference, you’d need around 4.0ohms.

So what does all this mean?

Basically, the testers found that, at particularly high utilization power levels, a specific composition of e-liquid (that we don’t know the specifics of) can potentially produce chemicals consistent with formaldehyde producing agents. That’s it. In order to generate these results, the testers had to set their device to a level the majority of vaporizer users either can’t do safely or wouldn’t do regardless, and the lower level of performance they tested at, which is roughly consistent with what most over the counter atomizers perform at, showed no results when analyzing for this specific chemical. It’s the equivalent of the whole “aspartame causes cancer,” deal in the 80’s where someone fed test animals extremely high dosages, then reported that at those high dosages cancer could be a concern. Basically, don’t eat an entire bag of Nutra-Sweet, and don’t vape at a level that will blow out your atomizer in a single day, and you probably won’t get the specific kinds of cancerous results the report is talking about.

To finish up, though, there is one big point I really want to make: just because this specific report doesn’t actually mean anything for the vast majority of vaporizer users, does not mean vaporizing is safe, because we still don’t know if it is or not. Reuters has a really good breakdown on the specifics of why we don’t know yet, including the sheer variety of products on the market, the complete lack of support from “Big Pharma” (unless by “support” you mean “supporting restrictions without any testing”), conflicts of interest due to funding issues, and bias from opposition to e-cigarettes, among many, many others. It’s entirely possible that e-liquid is giving you cancer in some completely unrelated way no one has discovered yet, or causing any one of a million other issues, and until someone sits down and actually performs a whole lot more testing, we likely won’t know. Just because this specific report is not that bad doesn’t mean another one won’t be in a year or two.

In the end, make your decision knowing the risks; just because we don’t know if there are any severe side effects to vaporizer use, and just because none of the experiments have shown that it’s harmful at normal usage levels yet, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Keep that in mind.


* Basically, it comes down to a combination of three things. First, PG tends to have a higher likelihood of instigating an allergic reaction in people than VG does, which is why I could never get into regular e-cigarettes, as they tended to make me hack and caused asthma symptoms, which fluids with a higher VG concentration don’t do, and I’m not about to spend money on a “proprietary blend” that might just cause negative effects and thus be useless. Second, none of their flavors particularly catch my eye, save for the peppermint flavor “Kringle’s Curse,” and to be frank, I can get peppermint flavors cheaper, from companies that allow customization, elsewhere. Third, I cannot, in good conscience, buy from a company that describes any of their flavors under the category “gourmet,” because that’s too pretentious, even for me. Also their logo looks like it was made by a five-year-old.

** Things like this. Generally speaking, someone using this sort of a device is roughly equivalent to a smoker who rolls their own or uses a pipe: dedicated to a level the vast majority of us will never understand or care about. In case you’re curious as to what the equivalent is for the person who grows their own tobacco or imports very specific products, that’d be this. If you want to use a multimeter to smoke, be my guest, but damn.

***I refuse to say “vape bars” because frankly, that’s some hipster shit right there.

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