A new study into the health effects of electronic cigarettes was released yesterday, and has already made headlines all over the world. Conducted by Dr. Jessica Wang-Rodriguez from the University of California, San Diego, the study looked at the effects of exposing human cells to e-cigarette liquid; it found that the liquid, especially if it contained nicotine, killed some of the cells and caused changes in others. Wang-Rodriguez says this means vape devices could cause cancer and “are no better than smoking regular cigarettes.” Predictably, it’s the cancer statement that the media is picking up on.
Vaping is being hailed as a safer alternative to smoking, so the claim that it’s just as dangerous is an alarming one. However there are a few problems with this claim, and it’s disturbing that journalists haven’t bothered to do some background reading before repeating it.
Firstly, Wang-Rodriguez – as she admits - wasn’t testing under realistic conditions. Vapers expose themselves to a dilute mist of tiny droplets; in the experiment cells were bathed in a concentrated extract made from e-liquid. The first rule of toxicology is “the dose makes the poison” – there’s a safe level of everything.
Secondly the cells used in the experiment are technically human, but you don’t have any like them in your body. They’re from a cell line that was collected from a human donor decades ago and has been modified for lab use. They don’t age, for example. They are genetically different from normal human cells.
Thirdly, the cells in a living human body are protected by an elaborate set of defenses. From the germ-proof skin to the toxin-filtering liver, multiple systems work day and night to protect them from disease, poisons and the environment. Cells in a petri dish are helpless. Yes, they die if you soak them in e-liquid. They die if you soak them in coffee. They die if you look at them funny. Ask any biotech worker the hardest part of their job; they’ll tell you it’s keeping their cell cultures alive.
Finally it’s just wrong. Finding cell death and DNA damage on a glass plate doesn’t tell you that the same chemicals will cause cancer. You can say they have similar effects as some things that cause cancer – and some things that don’t – but you can’t say they cause cancer. That’s bad science. It’s almost as if Wang-Rodriguez has a personal anti-vaping agenda and is exaggerating her findings to push it.
No smoke without fire
And yes she does. This shows up in her claim that e-cigarettes are as dangerous as smoking. No credible researcher anywhere believes this, because it's so obviously wrong. It’s worth pointing out that her research didn’t just compare the effects of e-liquid with a neutral control test (which still killed some of the cells!). There was also a comparison with what tobacco smoke does. Where this comparison is done the conclusion, every single time, is that e-cigarettes eliminate almost all the risks of tobacco smoke. It showed the same again in this study, but Wang-Rodriguez completely ignored that when she spoke to the media.
There’s nothing technically wrong with the research Wang-Rodriguez carried out; if there had been she probably couldn’t have got it published in a major journal. The science itself is reasonable and interesting. The problem is the claims she’s making about it. The science does not support those claims. What we’re seeing yet again is good research being distorted to support a personal opinion, and so-called science journalists going along with the scam.
Image by Gavin Rice