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New findings from a human cell culture study show that aerosols from e-cigarettes can cause cell death and oxidative stress but at lower levels than standard cigarettes.
The article from the December issue of Toxicological Sciences looked at extracts from four brands of e-cigarettes to see if the aerosols could increase reactive oxygen species levels. Reactive oxygen species, also known as free radicals, cause cellular stress and are known by-products of cigarette smoke.
The study, done at Tulane University, compared free radical levels between standard cigarettes fumes and e-cigarette aerosols. Researchers found that aerosols from e-cigarettes increased the number of free radicals in cells. However, the level of free radical increase only reached 50% of the increase caused by standard cigarette fumes. E-cigarette aerosols also caused cell death and DNA damage but at lower levels when compared to standard cigarettes.
Free radicals are highly-reactive molecules that can build up in the body during exposure to toxic chemicals. High free radical levels cause oxidative stress and are linked to cardiac disease and cancer. Consuming fruits and vegetables with anti-oxidants, such as Vitamin C, is a way to protect against the damage caused by free radicals.
This study also found that anti-oxidant treatment could prevent free radical increases. Certain brands of e-cigarettes already include anti-oxidants in their aerosol formulation. It's not currently known if including vitamins in aerosol can actually prevent free radical levels from increasing during e-cigarette use.
E-cigarettes work by creating very small particles to deliver nicotine in aerosol form, but the exact components of these aerosols are unknown. E-cigarette use is linked to cardiovascular disease but the overall risks of chronic e-cigarette use are still not well-understood.
The results of the study showing that free radical levels are lower in e-cigarette aerosols when compared to standard cigarettes. These increases were mitigated by anti-oxidant treatment in cells, findings that may seem promising to e-cigarette advocates. But an increase in free radicals, however small, is still cause for concern because of links between free radicals and cancer.
The use of e-cigarettes and tobacco alternatives are currently on the rise. A large number of students under 18 are using e-cigarettes before they switch to standard cigarettes. A survey of high school students found that many believed e-cigarettes to be a safe alternative to cigarettes, showing a lack of understanding about the risks of e-cigarettes among younger users.
This study shows that e-cigarettes may have harmful effects, even if the risk is lower than for standard cigarettes. These findings also show a need for more thorough studies of the clinical risks of long-term e-cigarette usage.