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Compounds in 'vape juice' could be damaging to the lungs

Whether vaping nicotine liquid is safer than smoking cigarettes has been under debate since e-liquid vaporizers became available. It is likely "vape juice," the liquid that vaporizes in e-cigarettes, contains fewer dangerous chemicals than burned tobacco. However, it is difficult to say whether vape juice is safe to be inhaled.

Research from October 2018 considered whether the compounds in vape juice are stable and safe for inhalation. Recently, a new study by researchers at Yale and Duke universities looked specifically at eight flavors of vape juice manufactured by the popular brand Juul, as Juul's liquid contains a somewhat different mixture of solvents. Like the previous research, this study indicates that vape juice often contains compounds that can cause an inflammatory response when inhaled.

According to NPR's report on the study, vape juice contains substances called "aldehydes," which are used as flavorings and perfumes. Some aldehydes are known to be harmful, while others are considered safe to touch and eat. However, it is not clear that they are safe to inhale, and people who vape are inhaling much larger amounts of these compounds than people who ingest them.

The study found a new, dangerous compound in the liquid. Vape juice contains alcohol and, when some aldehydes are mixed with alcohol, they form "acetals." Some research indicates that acetals are more irritating when inhaled than are aldehydes.

In other words, people who think their vape juice contains nothing but water vapor, nicotine and flavorings are mistaken. In fact, a spokesperson for the American Lung Association told NPR the vapor contains harmful chemicals like these, along with heavy metals and ultra-fine particles, which could also damage the lungs.

People may be getting sick now

Most of the research into the safety of e-cigarettes has assumed that any harm the products cause would come years down the line. Last week, however, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin reported that eight teens had been hospitalized in July due to "seriously damaged lungs."

The teens reported symptoms including "shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, cough and weight loss," the hospital said. All had been vaping in the weeks and months before their hospitalizations. The teens improved with treatment, but it is unclear what, exactly, caused the inflammation and how long the damage may last.

Researchers have a long way to go before they fully understand the effects of vaping, but the discovery of acetals in Juul vape juice adds to the evidence that the liquid can irritate or even damage the lungs. While vaping may be a better alternative than smoking, that does not mean vaping is safe.

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