Are There Dangerous Chemicals in my E-Liquid Flavorings?

The ingredient list in e-cigarette liquid is very simple. There is either propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin (sometimes a combination of both), nicotine and flavoring. Pretty straight forward, really. But that flavoring part, well that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It’s not surprising that eventually a study would surface questioning how safe some flavoring in your e-liquid really is.

The study was published in the journal Tobacco Control and it revealed supposedly high exposure levels to certain chemicals found in some flavorings that could spur respiratory irritation. The chemicals used to flavor e-cigarettes are often the same flavors that are added to our foods, meaning the FDA has determined that they are generally recognized as safe to consume. However, the authors of the new study say the flavorings raises concern for a user’s safety and the need for regulation is more important now than ever.  The researchers believe that these chemicals may be more dangerous when inhaled, as they are through an e-cigarette, than when they are ingested in food.

“Chronic inhalation of these ingredients has not really been studied much at all,” says study author Dr. James Pankow who is a professor of chemistry and civil & environmental engineering at Portland State University.

In the study, Pankow and his colleagues analyzed the levels and types of flavor chemicals used in 30 different refillable e-liquids, including a wide variety of popular flavors including tobacco, menthol, cherry, vanilla, chocolate, coffee, apple, cotton candy and bubble gum. In the majority of the liquids tested, 17 of the 30, the flavor chemicals made up about 1% of the refill liquid volume. The bulk of the rest had under 3% flavoring chemical content. Only one e-liquid tested was in the 4-5% range.

The researchers found that some of the more popular flavor chemicals used were benzaldehyde and vanillin, which are known to be respiratory irritants and therefore they have exposure limits for the workplace. When Pankow and his colleagues estimated consumption rates, they found that an e-cigarette liquid consumption rate of about 5 ml per day, which is equivalent to a heavy to an average smoker, puts users at an exposure of twice the recommended occupational limit. Dr. Pankow very simply says, “That’s probably not a good thing.”

The study authors point out several concerns about flavoring, including the old argument about certain flavors attracting youth users. In addition, they commented on the fact that flavored e-liquids don’t often list the levels of the specific chemicals used in flavoring. For all intents and purposes, these chemicals have already been deemed safe for consumption by the FDA. Safe for consumption, but does that mean safe for inhalation as well?

“The point is that when e-cigarettes manufacturers talk about these things as being food grade or food-like, they are sort of suggesting that use of flavors is equivalent to using them in foods,” says Dr. Pankow. “Never mind the fact that these things have not really been tested for safety, but in food, FDA requires labeling ingredients. If they are going to say these are food-like, then why don’t they list the ingredients? It’s also not a food-like product because you are inhaling it not ingesting.” Dr. Pankow’s comments are simply another echo of a cry for regulation that will likely require e-liquid manufacturers to list ingredients and make sure the consumer stays properly informed.

The researchers of this study also make sure to note that the small sample size of 30 liquids doesn’t necessarily represent the whole growing e-cigarette market. They safely conclude that the results are likely what a broader survey would have revealed and that their results suggest high levels of certain chemicals are likely present in many of the products you find on the shelves today. But what does that really mean to the vaper who is concerned that they may be ingesting harmful chemicals? Let’s take a closer look at this study and find out.

Initially, the study looked as the level of flavoring chemicals in a sample of 30 e-liquids. They tested the liquids, rather than the vapor, which is initially a cause for concern as far as the validity of the study is concerned. They tested liquids from companies like Halo, Mt, Baker Vapor, Blu and NJOY.

One issue with the conclusions of the study, especially in regard to Dr. Pankow’s comments, is the way it generalizes its findings with the worst case scenario in mind. When the researchers claim that e-cigarettes expose you to twice the occupational limit of these chemicals they are using the results from the one e-cigarette that had the highest level of flavoring chemicals, at just over 4 percent overall content, or nearly 4 times as much as the majority of those e-liquids studied. In addition, they are purporting that the average vaper uses about 5mL a day, but most vapers and experts will agree that an average daily intake is closer to 3mL. Using their own calculations, even at the 5 mL a day average, this one e-liquid is the only one that exposes the user to more benzaldehyde or more vanillin than the daily workplace limit—only one out of thirty, and that is the one they are using to make their startling conclusions.

Another crucial point is the study’s conclusions are vague at best. They claim respiratory irritation, but irritation doesn’t necessarily mean damage or long-term negative effects. The crucial point is that the irritation and potential negative effects are dependent on the levels to which you’re exposed, meaning you may never actually experience any respiratory discomfort at all, and certainly less than if you were smoking regular cigarettes rather than vaping.

And that’s another good point too, the researchers never once mention that there are, in fact, chemical flavoring agents in regular tobacco cigarettes too. Regular cigarettes are already heavily regulated, but what do you know they contain both benzaldehyde and vanillin, as well as many other savory ingredients. By weight, around 8.5 percent of tobacco is composed of flavorings. By comparison, only one e-liquid was over 4 percent flavorings by weight, with the majority containing under 1 percent. Even if the vaporization process changes dramatically the strength of the flavoring chemicals, it is likely you are getting at least an easily comparable level of flavoring chemicals whether you smoke or vape. The truth is there are so many other bad things in cigarettes, no one ever really cared to check the safety of those flavoring agents when inhaled, but with e-cigarettes, I guess there’s just nothing else left to attack.

The study’s conclusion, despite the sensational claims, isn’t really that groundbreaking. The conclusion states: “Regulatory limits should be contemplated for levels of some of the more worrisome chemicals as well as for total flavor chemical levels. Ingredient labeling should also be required.” That doesn’t seem that outrageous, or out of the ordinary, and most e-cigarette proponents aren’t going to balk at the idea of labeling, so why do some people feel it is necessary to create another sensation headline with another creatively worded study? Again the truth, once closely examined will always come out and undoubtedly point to e-cigarettes being a safer alternative and an overall benefit to people and society in general.