Back in January 2015 a story broke about a study by Portland State University chemists on e-cigarettes showing the levels of formaldehyde were higher than in traditional cigarettes. The researchers weren’t looking for formaldehyde, it was by accident that they found it, but they couldn’t sweep this finding under the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, so to speak. What they discovered was that formaldehyde is hidden, because it attaches itself to another molecule, and “in this unstable form, it could be released again in the body.” In their own scientific, easy-to-understand words, they “detected a boatload of it,” although they admitted they didn’t know if it was dangerous or “benign.”
The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, compared the amount of formaldehyde (a human carcinogen) produced by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day versus the amount of formaldehyde hemiacetal in aerosol particles in vaped e-cigs. Not only was the formaldehyde hemiacetal 5 times higher, it was 15 times “as tall as the amount of formaldehyde gas discovered in a 2014 study of vaped e-cigarettes.” It was also higher than the “concentration of nicotine,” which is not a carcinogen. The original intent of the study was to find out if flavorings used in e-cigarettes were safe to inhale. It had nothing to do with formaldehyde, but when levels were found at such high levels, the researchers looked into it.
Using a common tank model e-cigarette with a variable-voltage battery, the researchers did not detect the formation of any formaldehyde-releasing agents at low voltage (3.3 V), but did at high voltage (5.0 V). Their results created a vapor storm of comments by e-cigarette proponents who stated that the high voltage used by the researchers was unrealistic, would taste horrible and would be too harsh for users to inhale. But by the time you have inhaled and discovered the harsh, unpleasant taste, “you’re exposing yourself to those conditions. This level is a known phenomenon.” The researchers also believe that “formaldehyde-releasing agents may deposit more efficiently in the respiratory tract than gaseous formaldehyde.” As one of the researchers stated, “it’s pretty well known that inhaling cigars is unpleasant, but people do it.”
As they have moved forward, the researchers have continued to look at the formaldehyde issue using a variety of e-cigarette models, including a “dripper” in which users manually drop the e-liquid “onto the heating coil” in order to produce bigger vapor. This also produces high formaldehyde levels. The PSU team will be preparing a new article for the New England Journal of Medicine for the spring which “will address some of the controversies and will show results from the new round of research.”