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E-cigarettes may be contaminated with microbial toxins, studies find

Photo: Dondi Tawatao (Getty Images) E-cigarette fans at this time may become accustomed to bad news if the chemicals are found in their products. A new study out on Wednesday adds another potential, if still very fuzzy, risk to the list. It suggests that many e-cigarette cartridges and replenishment of e-fluids are contaminated with toxins that are flushed out of bacteria and fungi. Smoke from traditional tobacco cigarettes is apparently filled without a lack of toxins. Some of these toxins are not created by the actual burning of tobacco, but come from dead bacteria and fungi that pollute the products at some point during the production process. They contain endotoxins, which are found in gram-negative bacteria and glucans, which help to form cell walls of many fungal species. Respiratory disorders such as pneumonia or asthma relapses have been linked to breathing of endotoxins and glucans (whether through cigarette smoke or other exposures, such as working in a textile factory). However, according to the authors of this study, published in the environmental health perspective, there has never been an investigation into how common these microbial toxins could be in e-cigarette products. Harvard researchers tested 75 individual products from 10 of the leading brands at the time. They bought all products online, except those from a brand that was purchased from a convenience store near campus. These contained 38 cartridges (single-use devices) and 37 e-liquids used to replenish certain e-cigarette products in different flavors such as fruit, tobacco and menthol. They found…

Photo: Dondi Tawatao (Getty Images)

E-cigarette fans at this time may become accustomed to bad news if the chemicals are found in their products. A new study out on Wednesday adds another potential, if still very fuzzy, risk to the list. It suggests that many e-cigarette cartridges and replenishment of e-fluids are contaminated with toxins that are flushed out of bacteria and fungi.

Smoke from traditional tobacco cigarettes is apparently filled without a lack of toxins. Some of these toxins are not created by the actual burning of tobacco, but come from dead bacteria and fungi that pollute the products at some point during the production process. They contain endotoxins, which are found in gram-negative bacteria and glucans, which help to form cell walls of many fungal species.

Respiratory disorders such as pneumonia or asthma relapses have been linked to breathing of endotoxins and glucans (whether through cigarette smoke or other exposures, such as working in a textile factory). However, according to the authors of this study, published in the environmental health perspective, there has never been an investigation into how common these microbial toxins could be in e-cigarette products.

Harvard researchers tested 75 individual products from 10 of the leading brands at the time. They bought all products online, except those from a brand that was purchased from a convenience store near campus. These contained 38 cartridges (single-use devices) and 37 e-liquids used to replenish certain e-cigarette products in different flavors such as fruit, tobacco and menthol.

They found that 23 percent had detectable levels of endotoxin, while 81 percent contained some glucan. On average, the cartridges had three times more glucan than the e-liquids. Tobacco and menthol-flavored products had glucose levels that were 10 times higher on average. However, the endotoxin levels were slightly higher in fruit-sourced products.

The findings, the authors say, show that “some popular brands and flavors may be contaminated with microbial toxins.”

Scary as it sounds, there are some great approaches to the results.

One limitation is that they did not test the levels of toxins that actually end up in the aerosol produced by these products that the users would breathe. They also first tested the generation of first generation units, not newer ones such as pens, tanks and pods. Plants in particular now provide even more nicotine per puff to users through a different delivery method than older ones, but we have no idea how it can affect the level of exposure of these toxins. We know that people are generally exposed to significantly less environmental toxins from weapons than they would from smoking a tobacco cigarette (but that doesn’t mean e-cigs are completely harmless).

As even the authors acknowledge, there is no scientific evidence currently supporting “a hypothesis that current observed levels of endotoxin and glucan in [e-cigarettes] are causing health problems.”

Nevertheless, airborne endotoxin and glucan at sufficiently high levels seem to affect the lungs, and they are supposed to play a role in why cigarette smoke is so damaging to our breathing. So in any case, it is worth studying how often these toxins are found in e-cigarette products and if chronic exposure through arming can pose some health risks. If nothing else, there may be ways to reduce the risk of contamination. Cotton swabs are often used in e-cigarette cartridges, for example, and cotton fibers are routinely contaminated by both toxins.

“Further studies are needed to confirm our findings and assess potential exposures and health effects in users [e-cigarette]” The authors wrote.

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Faela