E-cigarettes not so safe but still better than cigarettes

According to latest research vaping using e-cigarettes can hasten the death of lung cells by up to fifty times and cause serious lung diseases later in life. This latest study was published in the journal Thorax.

E-cigarettes are a relatively new phenomenon and thus not much has been known about them and the harm they can cause. It is a popular belief as is purported by the e-cigarette makers that they are safer than traditional cigarettes.

Image Credit: Eldar Nurkovic / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Eldar Nurkovic / Shutterstock

Researchers at the University of Birmingham now have proof that the vapour inhaled from e-cigarettes can cause harm to the immune cells of the respiratory system. This in turn prevents these cells from clearing the lungs of harmful bacteria. They noticed that the damage to the lung tissues caused by the vapours were same as those seen in regular smokers. With time these changes could lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) just as it is seen in those who smoke regular cigarettes they add. COPD includes diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

According to Professor David Thickett, Department of Respiratory Medicine at Birmingham’s Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, “Where I live there is a vaping shop with a poster which says ‘save your lungs, switch to vaping’ and what we are saying is we don’t believe that’s true. If you vape for 20 to 30 years and it can cause COPD then that’s something we need to know about. A large number of e-cigarette companies are being bought up by tobacco companies and there’s certainly an agenda to portray e-cigarettes as safe. I don’t believe that e-cigarettes are more dangerous than cigarettes but I think we should have a cautious scepticism that they are as safe as we are being led to believe.” At present there are nearly 2.8 million regular users of e-cigarettes in Britain.

Public Health England (PHE) recommends smokers to switch to vaping saying that it is 95 percent safer than regular tobacco smoke. This new study stirs up the controversy challenging such claims. The US Surgeon General has however issued warnings that use of e-cigarettes among the young can lead to several problems such as nicotine addiction, mood swings and impairment of brain development. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also expressed concerns regarding the toxins that could be released when the e-cigarette fluids are heated for vaping.

Amidst this controversy, the Birmingham researchers extracted immune cells or alveolar macrophages, from lung tissue samples that were taken from eight non-smokers who were never diagnosed with asthma or COPD. These cells were then exposed to different levels of e-cigarette fluid and condensed vapour. They noticed that the vapours led to increased production of chemicals signalling inflammation of the cells. These signals disabled the protective cells in the lungs. These protective cells or immune cells are normally responsible for clearing the air spaces of bacteria and other microbes and harmful particles. The cell death also rose by fifty fold when exposed to the vapours. “Importantly, exposure of macrophages to vaporised fluid induced many of the same cellular and functional changes in alveolar macrophage function seen in cigarette smokers and patients with COPD,” the authors write.

This week the government’s Science and Technology committee would release a report on the safety of e-cigarette smoke. The Birmingham researchers have added that more in depth research is necessary to understand the effects of exposure to these vapours.

Ananya Mandal

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Ananya Mandal

Ananya is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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