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Vaping Regularly May Expose Teens to More Toxic Lead, Uranium, Study Says

Does vaping put teenagers at risk of toxic heavy metal exposure? New research says maybe.

Vaping is popular among teens, with the Food and Drug Administration reporting that roughly 1 in 7 American high school students were using e-cigarettes as of 2022. This equates to 2.14 million young people nationwide.

“E-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco products among U.S. adolescents since 2014, and youth e-cigarette use continues to be a public health concern,” Daisy Dai, a professor of biostatistics and associate dean of research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told Newsweek.

Previous studies have associated e-cigarette use with the potential risk of lung disease, asthma, damaged blood vessels and heart disease. Now, new research suggests it may be a source of toxic metals too.

Various heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, have already been detected in e-cigarette liquids. These metals are especially harmful during periods of development and have been linked to cognitive impairment, behavioral disturbances, respiratory problems and cancer and cardiovascular disease in children.

“Chronic exposure to metals, even at low levels, can lead to detrimental health impacts, affecting cardiovascular, renal, cognitive and psychiatric function,” Dai said.

These metals can also be produced from the e-cigarette itself. “E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that generate aerosols by heating a liquid solution with a metal coil,” Dai said. “This heating process can result in the release of metal particles into the liquid inhaled by e-cigarette users.”

To add to this research, Dai and her colleagues at the University of Nebraska Medical Center conducted a study to investigate the relationship between e-cigarette use and heavy metal levels in the body. Such metals also appear to be present in the urine of teenage vapers.

The study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, drew on responses to a study involving 200 teenage e-cigarette users whose urine was then tested for the presence of cadmium, lead and uranium. The teenagers were also questioned on how frequently they vaped, vaping either occasionally (0.9 puffs a day), intermittently (7.9 puffs a day) or frequently (27 puffs a day).

Their analysis found that lead levels in urine were 40 percent higher among intermittent vapers and 30 percent higher among frequent vapers, compared with occasional vapers. Uranium levels were twice as high among frequent vapers, compared with occasional vapers. Uranium levels were 90 percent higher among vapers who preferred sweet flavors, compared with those opting for menthol and mint.

“Our study, using a national survey and analysis of [urine] samples, uncovers a positive correlation between vaping frequency and increased exposure to metals among adolescent e-cigarette users,” Dai said. “Our findings underscore the potentially harmful effects of e-cigarette use on youths’ health, especially for those who vaped often.”

So what do other experts have to say about these results?

“This is a well-conducted study underscoring the need to carefully monitor exposure in e-cigarette users and highlights the fact that e-cigarettes are not risk free and therefore should not be used by people who have never smoked, particularly adolescents,” said Lion Shahab, a professor and co-director of the University College London’s Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, in a statement.

“This study confirms previous work using the same dataset that e-cigarette users are exposed to some heavy metals,” said Shahab, who was not involved in the new study.

However, Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the U.K.’s Open University, warned that these results should be interpreted with caution.

“There are so many sources of uncertainty about what’s going on here, and how the study’s findings can be interpreted, that I don’t think it can yet raise real health concerns,” he said in a statement.

He continued: “I’m certainly not saying that it’s a good thing for adolescents to vape—the risk of addiction to nicotine is a strong reason to discourage vaping in people who aren’t yet addicted. I certainly don’t want teenagers to vape. But it’s far too early to say that metals like lead or uranium coming from e-cigarettes are a danger to the health of adolescent vapers.”

Shahab said that it was important for these findings to be put into context.

“Uranium specifically has many different important sources of exposure (including food, water connected to geographic location), which were not controlled for in this analysis,” he said. “Further, previous work has not found differences in uranium exposure between non-users and users of e-cigarettes nor detected uranium in e-cigarette aerosol, suggesting this finding may be explained by other factors.”

Dai noted that the results had been adjusted to account for exposure to secondhand tobacco, environmental exposure from natural metal deposits and diet, and demographics such as age, sex and ethnicity.

“This is a well-conducted study underscoring the need to carefully monitor exposure in e-cigarette users and highlights the fact that e-cigarettes are not risk free and therefore should not be used by people who have never smoked, particularly adolescents,” Dai said.

Another issue, pointed out by Dai and McConway, is that this study is purely observational. “This research can’t establish that the higher levels of lead and uranium in the urine of participants who said they vaped more often were actually caused by their vaping,” McConway said. “It’s possible that that was the cause, or at least part of it—but there are several alternative explanations.

Clearly, more work is needed to confirm these associations, but Dai’s team has highlighted a concerning trend among teenage vape users that deserves investigation.

“Comprehensive vaping regulations and targeted public health interventions are needed to mitigate the potential harms of e-cigarette use among adolescents,” she said.

Pandora Dewan/Newsweek

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